Last Sunday we began our Christmas sermon series with the first four verses of the gospel of Luke, which gives Luke’s opening address to Theophilus. This Sunday we continue our series with the next 20 verses, which begins the actual narrative account. Only Luke and Matthew record the events leading to the nativity scene. So if it were not for them, we would not know how to celebrate Christmas in a way that is biblical and meaningful. As for Luke, he writes to continue the story of Israel from the Old Testament which closes with the words of Malachi. Some 400 years had quietly passed by New Testament but God had been at work to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. So allow me to use this perspective to give a brief account of what God had been doing during this inter-testament period.
Let me begin my story by bringing us back to the year 586BC when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The temple was destroyed and many Israelites were exiled. We can read about it in closing chapters of 2 Kings. However the Babylonian Empire did not last very long. God raised the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians and many Israelites then began to return and rebuild the temple and city walls. Religious practices by priests and Levites as well as public reading of Scriptures were also instituted. We can read about it in Ezra/Nehemiah. Two important things for us to take note of during this period: First, the temple that was rebuilt was not up to its former glory. Second, Ezra consolidated and gave Israel her Holy Scriptures (Hebrew Bible) which closed with Malachi prophesying about the coming of the Messenger (Elijah the prophet) who would prepare the way for the Lord. Then God went silent with his words but not with his work of preparing the people for the coming of the Lord who is the Truth.
After life in Jerusalem had been returned back to normalcy under the Persians, God raised up the Greek Empire which overthrown the Persians and conquered the known civilised world back then. Two important things for us to take note of during this period: First was the spread of Greek language so that people of different tribal languages could communicate in common Greek. Second was the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek by the Jewish communities that had been scattered all over and did not returned back. God allowed this to take place to prepare the world for the coming of the Truth, i.e. the Messiah as prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. Following the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire was divided among his four generals and Jerusalem came under the jurisdiction of the Seleucid. And when the ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes began to forbid Jewish religious practices and desecrated the temple in 164BC, the Jews revolted under the leadership of Judas Maccabee and restored Jerusalem back to self-rule. Some scholars believe that messianic prophecies could have been understood and anticipated as a result of these events. So was Judas the Messiah who delivered Israel from slavery under foreign power? No, he wasn’t because God was not done with preparing the world for the Truth yet.
With the weakening of the Greek Empire, God raised up the Romans to rule over the civilised world. Greek however remained the common people’s language and what the Romans contributed were the building of roads and commercialization of sea transportation. This meant that the world was now ready to be reached for the gospel. Another important development during this final period before the coming of the Messiah was the rise of Herod the Great. When Rome allowed the Jews to self-rule in Jerusalem, there arose the opportunity for a Jewish religious king. So Herod who was an Edomite managed to work his way around Roman politics to become that king. Though Herod was ambitious, cruel and paranoid at times, he was nevertheless a great builder and he rebuilt the temple among many other things. The rebuilt temple was more magnificent than the one Solomon built and was often referred to as the Second Temple. So he was called Herod the Great because of his magnificent construction work. And he was the Herod mentioned in Luke 1:5 when Jesus came into the world. He died shortly after (Matthew 2:19) and therefore the Herods that we encounter when Jesus began his ministry were his children. And now that the temple was rebuilt and restored to glory and the world could be reached and communicated with a common language, God was done with his preparation and the time had come for the Messiah to be revealed. With the Romans ruling over Jerusalem and an Edomite king governing Jewish affairs, the situation was ripe for the anticipation of the Messiah. And so the angel Gabriel appeared before a priest in the holy place and announced to him the birth of the Messenger, the prophet Elijah who was to come.
Pastor Ronnie Ang
December 9, 2012