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Charles Gardner explains why it should matter to Christians that Jesus is described as Jewish
Amid all the talk about the ethnicity of Jesus – whether black, white or somewhere in between – some appear to be ignoring the fact he was Jewish.
The debate around Christ's skin colour, which has arisen out of the Black Lives Matter protests, has now been taken up by clergymen desperate to project the church as relevant in an increasingly volatile environment. The incoming Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, recently told The Times, "Jesus was a black man".
Jesus came for everyone, and it’s understandable that different cultures should want to present him in their own image. Here in the UK, for example, Jesus has typically been depicted as a white Westerner. But such unhelpful representations often ignore the fact that Jesus is Jewish. He came “to his own” (John 1:11) as the long-promised Jewish Messiah, and will return to Jerusalem as a Jew, specifically, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David”. (Revelation 5:5)
As the Brighton-based author and speaker David Hoffbrand puts it in his book The Jewish Jesus, we need to strip away the layers that have increasingly masked Jesus over the centuries so we can see him as he really is. In one ancient Byzantine church, a fresco depicted Jesus as blond-haired and blue-eyed. Hoffbrand reports how several layers of paintings were found underneath, which dated back to as early as 600 AD. “The interesting thing was,” Hoffbrand writes, the further the archeologists went, "the more like a typical Jewish man Jesus looked [in the painting], with dark brown hair, brown eyes and olive skin.”
Jesus came for both Jews and Gentiles (Luke 2:32). It was his Jewish disciples who brought the light of the gospel to the world at large – all but one of the Bible’s 40 authors were Jewish. Our Lord was steeped in all the ways and customs of the Jews and, apart from a brief exile in Egypt as an infant, never set foot outside Israel. And when, aged 30, he began his ministry as a rabbi, he said he had not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). In fact, he went on to emphasise the importance of every jot of the law’s requirements (v18). His family attended the major feasts in Jerusalem, requiring a considerable 70-mile journey (probably on foot) through rugged hill country. He himself fulfilled the feasts, in being sacrificed as our Passover Lamb and in rising from the dead on the feast of first-fruits. These facts are often ignored and overlooked in the current discussions.
Jesus focused on the Old Testament command to love our neighbour as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). But he went further by urging us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). This surely applies to the victims of prejudice today, not least our fellow Christians who are being butchered to death by the thousands in oppressive regimes around the world. Sadly, the age-old problem of Jewish persecution is also a reality in our world today. Although they should now be safe in their own land once more, they instead face repeated threats of extermination from their enemies – most notably Iran. Yet wonderfully and miraculously, in a country where following Jesus is extremely dangerous, a huge army of Iranian believers has emerged from the darkness of this rogue regime. Most significantly, it is reported that when these new Christians in Iran realise that Jesus is Jewish, it changes their whole perspective on the people they have been brainwashed to see as their enemies. With melted hearts, they are falling in love with the Jewish people whose Messiah has freed them from fanatical Islam’s chains of imprisonment.
Like these Christians in Iran who are engaged in persistent prayer for Israel, I have found it to be true that, if you love Jesus, you will love the Jews – his brothers in the flesh.
Jesus is Jewish. Focusing on this truth will not only increase our knowledge but also greatly enrich our faith.
Charles Gardner is South African-born journalist based in Yorkshire, England. He became a Christian at the outset of his career 40 years ago and has developed a particular love for Israel and the Jewish people. He is author of Israel the Chosen and King of the Jews
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