Note to the Reader
This post is longer than usual, but its length testifies to its importance.
Jesus was born during a time of high political and racial tension. For starters, first-century Palestinian Jews were divided among themselves concerning how to respond to the reality of Hellenism. There we some who espoused adapting Greco-Roman ways to their Jewish identity by arguing that to do so would by no means compromise the spirit of the Torah and Torah obedience (the Hellenizers). They argued that it was time for Jews to “get with it” in terms of contemporary culture that not only pervaded their daily life, but that governed the very Promised Land. They believed that non-conformity and religious identity being hand-in-hand was a thing of the past.
There were others who were vehemently opposed to such an idea (the Zealots). They believed that to compromise on a literal reading of the Torah (which leads to non-conformity) would mean failure to obey the commands of God. Violation of the Torah is what brought about the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C., and they wanted to do all that they could to prevent such a shameful thing from happening again. They argued that being Jewish was indeed largely synonymous with non-conformity. Jews are to be set a part as God is set a part (holiness).
The polemic that existed between the Hellenizers and the Zealots is just one of many other fractions among first-century Palestinian Jews. There were other divisions driven by doctrinal disagreement as well. Ultimately, Jews during this time were looking to understand what it meant to be Jewish in the changing world and different groups had different ideas as to what that looked like.
Jewish identity isn’t the only thing that they were wrestling with at this time. They also wrestled with the frustration that they were being ruled by pagans, namely, Rome. Yahweh Elohim was the God of the cosmos and all other gods were fabrications of the human imagination. This was the clear message of the prophets (especially Isaiah). How is it then that the Romans, who worshipped an eclectic pantheon of gods were exercising control over God’s chosen and loved people? The Romans were no different than the Egyptians all those years ago when God sent Moses to deliver then from their slavery. What Pharaoh was then, Caesar was for first-century Palestinian Jews.
They knew that even though they suffered under Roman oppression, there was a king like David who was to come and start a rebellion. Not only would he be a king like David, but also a covenant-maker like Moses. Jeremiah promised that God would make a new covenant with them and the Messiah would be key.
We cannot leave out the fact that preceding Roman rule over Judea was the Hasmonean monarchy. This was the last time before 1949 that Jews autonomously ruled themselves as a political state in Israel. The Hasmonean monarchy (also know as the Maccabean dynasty) was wrought with oppressive kings, even though they were Jewish. The monarchy started in 110 BC as a Jewish priest (Judas Maccabeus) started a rebellion against Greek rule when he refused to desecrate the temple at the command of Greek politicians. Out of anger, passion, and zeal for the God of the Jews, the priest slaughtered the Greeks around him. This spawned a massive uprising in which the Jews successfully kept the Greeks at bay for long enough to establish an autonomous jewish rule in the name of zeal for obedience to the Torah. Hanukkah, by the way, commemorate the cleansing of the temple that came with the Maccabean revolt. Jesus lived not long after this period and would have celebrated this Jewish national holiday.
Once again, while the Maccabean period started as a reaction to oppression and corruption from Greek politicians through the generations of Maccabean kings, over time the Hasmonean kings were looking more and more like the Greeks. They became exactly like the very enemies they defeated. The rebelled against tyrants, set up their own government, and became tyrants themselves (this happens all throughout human history; see the Russian Revolution resulting in the USSR under Lenin and then Stalin). Not only that, but the royal family was constantly fighting with one another about who had the right to rule. The power grabbing knew no end.
Eventually, the Hasmonean kings asked for the help of Caesar in order to settle a dispute among the royal family. Rather than solving the dispute, however, Rome took control of Israel and named Herod the King of the Jews (6 AD).
Herod himself was no exception to typical human power. He was a power hungry, compromising, violent and oppressive political leader who tried to keep in good standing with both Rome and the Jews at the same time, with Rome being the priority. Even within Herod’s family there was constant power grabbing, manipulation, and even murder for the sake of maintaining power.
All the while, the people of Israel are looking to the Father in prayer asking, “When will you send the Messiah? When will you send our true king? When will you send us a liberator rather than an oppressor!?” They knew the time was close because of Daniel 9:24 that says (depending on how you interpret the numbers) that the exile would end and God’s glory would return to them as in the days of the Wilderness Wandering after 490 years. This placed the time precisely around the time of Jesus birth.
We know from other elements in history that people were expecting the Messiah to come at any time. The community at Qumran, for one, attested to the fact that people were expecting the end to come and that apocalyptic climax in history would be launched by the coming of the Messiah by way of the wilderness.
The point of all of this is that when Jesus was born, things were tense. Thousands of young jewish men had been crucified for mounting rebellions against Rome in the name of jewish nationalism. The Hasmonean kings were successful for a while in forcing “God’s Kingdom Come” in a time of gentile oppression (Greece), but that monarchy came to an end after less than two hundred years. People were waiting for their true leader to lift up arms against their oppressors just like Moses.
Rome and Herod were keeping watch for the rebellion. When the wise men came to Herod, the NT says that Herod was afraid (and all Jerusalem with him). He was afraid because he didn’t want to lose power and he certainly didn’t want to see an all out war between Israel and Rome (this is what happened eventually ending in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans). Herod went so far as to ordering all the baby boys killed because his power was threatened by anyone claiming to be the Messiah.
This also explains why Jesus was always telling people to keep his messianic activities (miracles, healing, etc.) a secret. He knew that if people were certain that he was the Messiah, then Rome (or Herod) would sweep in and put an end to Jesus’ ministry (which, again, is precisely what happened in the Cross). Have you ever noticed that so many times Jesus avoids stating flat-out “I’m the Messiah.” He avoids such a direct declaration because it would have started a war!
So, to conclude, what does all of this history bring to bear on the birth of Jesus? Jesus comes to us as an innocent baby, born of an innocent (virgin) young girl.
In the midst of human oppression, coercian, power grabbing, violence, politicking, and manipulation for power, a helpless, humble, quiet, gentle baby is born.
This is the nature of the Kingdom of God. You see, God’s power isn’t manifest in oppressing people, or forcing people to do his will. No, God’s power is manifest in innocence and weakness. God’s saving power comes to the world through a humble Jewish family (Mary and Joseph). God doesn’t need to lie, manipulate, steal, cheat, kill, or conquer in order for his will to be done. God’s will is accomplished in weakness and innocence, all wrapped up in a little baby.
This testifies to the kind of people Christians are to be. The world is warring on; politicians, national leaders, religious leaders, and even racial advocates shout with raised voices, crying out in anger against injustice, swinging big sticks, rattling their sabers, and threatening one another with violence, force and oppression. This is the characterization of the kingdoms of humanity. Christians aren’t to fight this way. In the Kingdom, God’s will is accomplished through our innocence, gentleness, humility, poverty, and weakness. This is what Jesus means when he says,
Blessed are the poor and spirit, for those is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
When the world seeks power, we are to submit. When the world is violent, we are to be gentle. When the world is full of harshness and judgment, we are to be gracious and merciful. When the world makes enemies, we are to be peacemakers. When the world makes a war out of a demand for rights, we’re to be willing to give up our rights. When the world hates, we are to love.
Like Jesus, when the world pours out evil into the world, we are to absorb it into our selves and pray for God’s redemption.