The World of Jesus’ Birth
- What kind of a world was it? What was going on? What was it like? What do we know about the world that Jesus was born into?
1.1. It was a world marked by foreign occupation and heavy taxation.
Imagine that in 1960, China had successfully invaded and took control of this country. Their military presence was everywhere. Soldiers regularly patrolled the streets and Chinese culture and communist ideology had replaced American ideology and culture. Imagine that Chinese was now the primary language spoken by the people. If such a thing had happened, America would feel like a foreign place to many of us. Though it is hard to comprehend something very similar to this did happen to Israel (or the territories of Galilee, Samaria and Judea as they were known in Jesus’ day). 60 years prior to His birth, Rome had successfully invaded and were occupying the region. Jewish culture – even sacred places – such as the Temple, had been “Romanized” or made to serve the interests of the Republic (e.g. sacrifices were now made each day for Rome and her leaders). Roman (or Hellenistic) culture and ideology – even Greek (the language of the Roman empire), had become the dominant influence. The “new Israel” didn’t look anything like her predecessor. The Jews were once again strangers in a strange land. Their beloved country was as foreign as the people of its occupation. And if this wasn’t enough, such occupation brought the oppression of heavy taxation. There were customs taxes, import and export taxes, toll bridge taxes, crop taxes, sales tax, property taxes, and special taxes when there was a Roman war, building project or campaign to finance. On top of this the Romans also required one percent of a person’s yearly income. And the Romans were determined to make sure everyone paid. Hence the reason for the “census of Quirinius” mentioned in (Luk 2:1-5) in association w/Christ’s birth. This was a census for the purpose of identifying who was eligible (and should be) paying taxes.
1.2. It was a world marred by violent (or bloody) insurgencies and counterinsurgencies
The Jews were not happy about the Romans, and the wounds were still fresh at the time Jesus was born. As such, there were several very violent (or bloody) insurgencies followed by equally violent and bloody counterinsurgencies.
The first insurgency happened when a large eagle made of gold (the symbol of Rome) was installed on Temple grounds by Herod the Great (Rome’s first appointed king in the region). Such blasphemy was not received well by the Jews and several took it upon themselves to have it torn down. Herod responded (to such insurgency) by having those responsible publicly burned alive (imagine seeing that at the place you went to worship!).
The next insurgency was by the hands of a man named Simon who (according to Josephus)…
“burnt down the royal palace at Jericho, and plundered what was left in it. He also set fire to many other of the king’s houses in several places of the country, and utterly destroyed them, and permitted those that were with him to take what was left in them (meaning people) for prey.”
The third was by a man named Judas bar Hezekiah. Judas was upset over the taxes being paid to the Romans and decided he had enough. So he (and a band of like-minded Jews) decided to start taking back their country – one city at a time. He (however) wasn’t the hero (or virtuous) type. His methods made him more perpetrator than liberator.
“Judas, having gotten together a multitude of men of a violent character, made an assault upon the palace [in Sepphoris], and seized upon all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him, and carried away what money was left there. He became terrible to all men, by tearing and rending those that came near him; and all this in order to obtain kingship as the reward – not [bc] of his virtuous skill in war, but of his extravagance in doing injuries.”
The insurgencies of Simon and Judas were soon squelched by the counter-insurgency measures of Archelaus (the Roman appointed king after Herod the great) who inflicted his own brand of violence.
Not only did the cities where the insurgencies had taken place, but also hunted down (through a man named Varus) anyone associated w/the insurgencies and had them publicly crucified.
Again Josephus writes…
“Varus sent a part of his army into the country to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished… them. Now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.”
No doubt, all of this was distressing to the Jews – including Joseph and Mary (Jesus’ parents). This would have been especially true in relation to events surrounding the city of Sepphoris since it existed only four miles outside of Nazareth (the city where Jesus was raised according to Luk 2:39-40). Given what we know, it is possible Jesus and His family were residing there when the attacks took place.
Did they see the troops – or experience any of the violence? Did they know any of those that were crucified? How disturbing it must have been to be young parents w/a newborn in the midst of so much bloody violence. How disturbing it must have been to hear of people being burned alive or crucified.
1.3. It was a world filled with widespread crime.
As if the prior events were not enough, the region suffered also the dangers of widespread crime
Again from the pen of Josephus…
“Now at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults, because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture, either out of hopes of gain to themselves, or out of enmity to the Jews … And now Judea was full of robberies; and as the several companies of the seditious lighted upon any one to head them, he was created a king immediately, in order to do mischief to the public.”
Finally, it must be mentioned that this world our Savior was born into was…
1.4. A world steeped in spiritual darkness.
By the time of Jesus, it had been almost five hundred years since a prophet had been in Israel. Since Malachi, God had been silent. No new words from God, no prophets. The Spirit had departed and the people knew it as evidenced by their writings. (For example):
“After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel” – Rav Ashi (author of the Babylonian Talmud)
“From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” – Josephus
“[the Jewish people] tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.” – The (unknown) author of (1st Maccabees).
This period of time (before and up) to Jesus’ birth is depicted (in Mat 4:16) as a time of dwelling in spiritual darkness. Little to spiritual light was left in the world.
So then, this was the world that Jesus (our Savior) was born into. A strange, violent, dangerous and dark world (especially for His people, the Jews). Not the kind of world flashing with Christmas lights or the festive things we think of (when thinking of) Jesus’ birth. Instead again) a very scary place… a place presenting no signs of real hope for the future.
So what does that mean? What can we take away from such information? Well two things I believe…
- Two Quick Takeaways from what we’ve learned (two things to warm your little heart this Christmas season):
2.1. The bleakest of times have also been the times when God greatest works of salvation have taken place (e.g. The Exodus, The birth of Christ [as we just discussed/discovered. Hence the reason for the angel’s proclamation – Luk 2:10 and 14] –AND the return of Christ – Rev 20:9).
2.2. We need to view our current situation thru a similar lens.
It is easy to only see similar things going on around us in the present and forget about what God has done in the past. Our world (or country) may seem (to some of us) a little strange – and (at times) violent and dangerous. And it for sure HAS BEEN (pretty) spiritually dark! BUT that’s no reason to FRET. God (once more) has done some of His greatest work during these times. What might He be planning to DO (even w/us here at Christ Covenant Church)? What great work could be ahead of us? THAT (Beloved) is the spirit/perspective we should possess this holiday season. No matter how scary or hopeless things look, our lens should be one of optimism and anticipation of the great things our God tends to do when things are at their bleakest.