What we celebrate at Christmas is a repudiation of racism and all forms of ethnocentric superiority and segregation. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, born of the Virgin Mary, and his adoptive father Joseph was of Davidic descent. Nevertheless, the angel of the Lord declared about his birth: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). Jesus’s conception and birth were a supernatural act of the triune God and the most significant event in Israel’s story and of God’s mission to all people. Christmas was the decisive turning point in the kingdom of Christ that ushered in the multi-ethnic gospel community called the church.
There has always been a desire to clean up the incarnation story. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation people have attempted to disembody the Christmas story and make it more spiritual, sentimental, and less flesh-and-blood. Jesus has often been fashioned as a heavenly teacher who only appeared human but who helps us to discover the greatness within. Others put forth a Jesus, who is merely a symbol of a self-defined morality of niceness. Others fashion him as a wholly mystical teacher of secret religious knowledge only accessible through ecstatic experience. In these Jesus makeovers, he stays above the fray, and his followers do as well. Such a path provides a way to avoid the messy problems of the real world like racial injustice.
When Jesus is disembodied and removed from the biblical story of Israel, then his teaching, wisdom, and morality, can be abstracted and incorporated into one’s existing self-referential presuppositions, thereby, minimizing the universal consequences of his life and teaching, for all people, in all places, during all times. I have always appreciated Andrew Peterson’s Christmas song “Labor of Love” because it refuses to sanitize the cultural situation surrounding the birth of Christ:
It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town
And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold
It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love
The Scripture says, Christ is “the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created” and “all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-17). Genesis begins with heaven and earth and then builds to God’s crowning creation—man and woman who were uniquely made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). Paul explains in his sermon at the Areopagus, God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:25b-26). Thus, all forms of racism and cultural elitism are at odds with God’s design and are manifestations of sinful rebellion against God that began at the original fall into sin.
“All forms of racism and cultural elitism are at odds with God’s design and are manifestations of sinful rebellion against God that began at the original fall into sin.”
After the fall, God announced the messianic promise of a seed born of a woman who would crush the head of the serpent and his parasitic kingdom. The tragic events that disrupted the harmony of the entire created order, including the shame and alienation of man and woman in the presence of God, would not be the final word—God’s grace in Christ would be (Gen 3:15). The serpent seeks to divide God’s image bearers into antagonistic factions along whatever lines are at his disposal; race and ethnicity are his default method. The result of human image bearers in sinful rebellion to God is enmity with one another as the Genesis account exemplifies (Gen 4-11). The promise to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3) was a continuance of the “seed promise” in Genesis 3:15 and finds its culmination in the unifying cosmic authority of Jesus Christ and by extension, all who are united to him and to one another by faith across all cultural lines—including race and ethnicity.
The New Testament gospel accounts make clear that the birth of Christ is good news of great joy “for all of the people” (Luke 2:10). Matthew’s gospel begins with reference to the Abrahamic promise and ends with the Great Commission command to “make disciples of all nations [ethne]” (Matt 1:1, 28:16-20). The inclusion of Gentile women in the genealogy of Jesus serves the theological purpose of clarifying that Christ’s kingdom and his church is designed to be a mix of Jews and Gentiles who worship the one true God (Matt 1:3, 5, 6). Luke’s gospel account and his subsequent Acts of the Apostles, clearly marks the multiethnic church as the exclusive fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise and the definitive evidence of the work of the Spirit. In John’s gospel account, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us recapitulates the Genesis 1-2 creation and marks Jesus’s birth as a new Genesis for the people of the one true God.
“Where racism is embraced, the mind of Christ on display in the incarnation and subsequent crucifixion is rejected.”
Where racism is embraced, the mind of Christ on display in the incarnation and subsequent crucifixion is rejected. All racism and ethnocentrism ground the identity of a life created in the image of God in self and not in God and the gospel of the kingdom. That is why Paul links believing in the incarnation, and crucifixion of Christ with how we view and treat other image bearers:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:3-8).</blockquote
Herod the Great saw the birth of Jesus Christ as a threat to his real-world reign, and he was right (Matthew 2). The same is true for all of the kingdoms we build including ones based on the shade of a person’s skin. Whatever Paul means by referring to the church, Jew and Gentile, as “one new man” and “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:15, 19), at the very least, he means that vertical reconciliation with the triune God in Christ demands horizontal reconciliation across cultural preferences and ethnicities with one another in Christ. Christmas is often considered an important family time and that is a good thing, but we must not forget that in Christ our family is the multiethnic gospel church.
Our theology needs to dig a bit deeper than it often does, and should be marked by an awe-inspiring profundity than can account for the following vital, non-negotiable theological assertion: “Red, brown, yellow, Black and white, They are precious in His sight.” Merry Christmas should mean the end of racism in the church.
David E. Prince is assistant professor of preaching at Southern Seminary and is pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. This article originally appeared on his blog, Prince on Preaching.