Amidst all the talk about the ethnicity of Jesus – whether black, white or somewhere in between – many choose to ignore the fact that he is Jewish.
The debate around our Lord’s skin colour, arising 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 that “Jesus was a black man”.
But as a Jewish Israeli put it in a Zoom conference last weekend, it’s not so much black or white lives that matter as eternal life! Amir Tsarfati is an ardent follower of Jesus passionate about sharing his faith with his fellow countrymen.
Yes, Jesus came for everyone, and it’s understandable that different cultures should want to present him in their own image, but this is unhelpful because 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”. (Rev 5.5)
As Brighton-based author and speaker David Hoffbrand beautifully put it, we need to strip away the layers that have increasingly masked Jesus over the centuries so we can see him as he really is. Referring to a TV programme about an ancient Byzantine church where a fresco depicted him as blond and blue-eyed, he said they found several layers of paintings underneath going back to the earliest days of the era around 600 AD. “The interesting thing was,” he wrote, “the older the picture uncovered, the more like a typical Jewish man Jesus looked, with dark brown hair, brown eyes and olive skin.”
Jesus came as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2.32). And indeed 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 (Matt 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 coming to live (or tabernacle) with us, in being sacrificed as our Passover Lamb and in rising from the dead on the feast of first-fruits.
Although Jesus indeed loved everyone, discipleship wasn’t dependent on the ethnicity of his hearers, but on their humility. “Blessed are the meek,” he said, “for they will inherit the earth.” (Matt 5.5)
In our relationships with others, Jesus focused on the command to love our neighbour as ourselves, which actually first appears in the Old Testament (Lev 19.18). But he went further by urging us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5.44).
This surely applies to the victims of prejudice today, not least our fellow Christians who are being butchered to death by the thousand in oppressive regimes around the world. And this goes on amid the continuing persecution of Jews, who brought us the light of the glorious gospel, and who gave us Jesus himself.
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 believers has emerged from the darkness of this rogue regime.
Most significantly, it is reported that when these new Iranian Christians realise that Jesus is Jewish, it changes their whole perspective on the people they have been brainwashed to see as their enemy. With melted hearts, they are falling in love with the Jewish people whose Messiah has freed them from fanatical Islam’s chains of imprisonment.
Christians in Iran are right now engaged in persistent prayer for Israel, and especially for their fellow believers there. And 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 and ensure we maintain a right perspective on the social and political issues of our day.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International; and King of the Jews, also available from Christian Publications International.