Things were a political mess when Jesus was born. The Romans, who controlled Palestine at the time of Jesus birth, were constantly pushing back against the subtle current of Jewish subversion and insubordination to Roman rule. There was nothing that Rome could do about the fact that the Jews were waiting for their Messiah who was expected to overthrow gentile oppression of the Jewish people represented in Roman rule. No matter how much propaganda Rome produced to incite support and allegiance to the empire, faithful Jews would always hold tight to an unfailing hope of independence from Rome. They knew that there was something better yet to come because God promised it (see Is. 11:1–9).
Because of this unfailing hope that would undermine the rule of Rome, political talk always put people on edge. Everyone knew that the consequence for promoting rebellion against Rome was death (by way of crucifixion). People knew that if they stood up for what they believed in, they would be targeted for persecution, criticism, alienation, and judgment.
This wasn’t just a political struggle, but a culture war. Rome forced its conquered people to conform to Roman ways through participation in the imperial cult. People were required to recognize and pay homage to the Roman pantheon of gods as well as the deity of the Emperor. Even though the Jews were granted special permission to continue in their differing beliefs (covenantal monotheism), they were still viewed negatively as non-conformists with primitive beliefs inferior to the Roman culture and worldview. After all, if the God of the Jews was superior to the Roman gods, then Rome wouldn’t be ruling over the Jews, now would it?
These political and cultural tensions that characterized the first century explain why when Jesus was born, everyone was afraid including Herod, the supposed king of the Jews (Matt. 2:3). This also explains why Herod ordered for all the infant males in Bethlehem to be killed when he heard that the Messiah was born there (Matt. 2:16). Herod’s decree would send the message to his Roman caporegimes that he would stand against anyone who was in support of anti-Roman sentiments, including the hope for a Messiah-figure.
So what’s the significance of all of this for us? This context isn’t different from our own context today in the Western world, and particularly in America. There is a culture war going on that has spilled over into politics and this has put everyone on edge because people are afraid of the consequence that come with standing up against the proverbial “Rome”—the Bully. This Bully mocks and degrades those who do not share their belief. This Bully punishes, criticizes, and alienates those who refuse to validate the false narrative and empty promises of freedom. Just like in Jesus’s day, standing up for truth and the hope for a better future that is marked by the reign of moral righteousness, justice, and true peace, means running the risk of being persecuted and labeled “primitive”.
Like the Christians of the early Church, we must not be fearful of the Bully. Like Mary, Joseph, and all the other characters on the stage of God’s story of overthrowing the tyrannical reign of Rome, we must stand firm in our convictions and live a life of simple obedience, innocence, courage, righteousness and faith that is grounded in the hope and truth that Jesus is the King.