And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:17-19 (ESV)
Matthew 1:23 is often cited during the Christmas season as it recounts the story of Jesus’s birth, but I think the passage from Luke more aptly conveys the meaning of Christmas. Both authors quote the Old Testament book of Isaiah; what Matthew shares tells us what happened at Christmas, but Luke talks about why it happened.
Jesus read only an excerpt from Isaiah 61 but the whole chapter conveys Jesus’s goal of restoring creation to God’s original, intended design. Even as Luke continues to recount the events that transpired in the synagogue after Jesus read this passage that day we get a glimpse into Jesus’s endgame.
And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.
Luke 4:22-30 (ESV)
It seems bizarre that one moment the people all spoke well of him and marveled and the next they wanted to throw him down the cliff. Jesus had only recently started His ministry, travelling the area and performing miracles. When He returned to His home town people expected miracles, nothing more. In other towns Jesus was recognized as one sent by God and the miraculous came from their faith in who Jesus was. This wasn’t the case in Nazareth where Jesus was Joseph’s son, a commoner. It wasn’t possible for Jesus to do many miracles1 because people wanted amazing acts without having to acknowledge the person from whom they came.
Jesus no doubt knew their expectations and we see Him address this by sharing examples from the Old Testament of those whose lives were impacted by God. Without reading those examples in their entirety, it is enough to say that the people whom God helped were outsiders, those whose Jesus’s countrymen would have considered rejected by or unworthy of God. Jesus gave these examples specifically because He wanted His own people to realize that God was seeking those who seek Him2. That Jesus illustrated this with people who were not Israelites was beyond insulting, thus the sudden change in the crowd’s demeanor and their attempt to kill Him. This wasn’t the first time people tried to kill Jesus3, in fact people were trying to kill Jesus right from the start.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Matthew 2:13 (ESV)
Yet these repeated threats of death only serve to underlie the real meaning of Christmas. Despite the many attempts on His life, no one could actually kill Jesus. They plotted, they made attempts, but they never succeeded.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Matthew 27:50 (ESV)
Jesus was not killed by anyone, rather of His own free will He gave up His life4. The original language in verse 50 implies more than Him simply dying, but rather a voluntary yielding of His life. This is the real meaning of Christmas.
The birth of Jesus is significant but the purpose of His birth was that He would willingly surrender His life so we could step into a restored relationship with God. God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’s birth, but focusing beyond the simple image of Jesus as a baby helps us understand His endgame that everyone is able to come into a relationship with God because He willingly chose to surrender His life.