Part of the Christmas story tells us the reason why Jesus came: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
To us this seems like a pretty awesome message and yet, to the original hearers, it would have been like rubbing salt into their wounds.
Consider the nature of the society and times into which Jesus was born. The nation of Israel had been conquered and oppressed by a succession of foreign powers for almost 600 years, starting with the Babylonian Empire in 586 BC. This was followed by the Persians in 536 BC; the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, in 332 BC; and the Romans in 63 BC. Israel continued to be dominated and oppressed by Rome until 313 AD. It was into this tyranny that Jesus was born.
Kenneth Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, states, “At the time of Jesus much of the land was owned by foreigners who controlled huge estates. Local farmers were obliged to rent land and were often treated unfairly” (P. 48).
Jesus was born into an economically and politically oppressed people who were looking for a Saviour to deliver them and to rejoice in the pain and destruction of their tormentors. The last thing you want when you’re oppressed is for someone to point out “your” sins, faults and failures. Sin is what “those” people are doing to “us”. “Our” sins are not worth noting compared to “their” sins against us. Salvation is what “we”need – to be set free from “them”.
But Jesus didn’t speak about the oppressors or the political life of Israel and Rome, and so His message and ministry disappointed many because He hadn’t come to set people free from Roman oppression, He came to set them free from their own sins.
Jesus faced opposition and was ultimately crucified because He challenged the sins of His own people, rather than the sins of the oppressors. On one occasion some people came to Jesus to inform Him of the Galileans Pontius Pilate had slaughtered while they were worshipping God and making sacrifices to Him (Luke 13:1-3). No doubt the people were expecting Jesus’ response to be one of outrage, but once again His message was disappointing: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” In other words, don’t worry about the sins of others, what about your sins? Instead of outrage, Jesus gave this message: “You are all sinners; you all need to repent and receive God’s forgiveness and grace. You need salvation from your own sins and I am here to provide it for you.” That is the Christmas story and that is why Jesus was born!
No doubt Jesus’ message is still disappointing to some people today. Awful things still happen in the world and we want to be outraged and blame others for all the pain and suffering. Some people even use this as an excuse to blame God, get angry with Him or choose not to believe at all. After all, “If there is a loving God why is there so much suffering in the world?” You might find Jesus’ message to be as disappointing as those in first century Israel, but the message hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. God asks us to look within and deal with the sin in our own life. Imagine if everyone did that. We’d have heaven on earth and experience another aspect of the Christmas story, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”