Before The First Christmas

When I was younger, I used to be in a theater group. One year we did a play about the Maccabees. I can still remember one line in the song. “Antiochus, the terrible has made our lives unbearable.” Unbearable ended up being a bit of an understatement.

Antiochus heavily restricted (forbid) Jewish tradition, because he wanted them to fall under Greek lifestyle. He forbid reading Hebrew law, observing the Sabbath, and circumcising their children in obedience to God. This ruthless ruler built an altar to the Greek God, Zeus, in the temple built for God, Himself. He even sacrificed a pig on it, and pigs were considered unclean to the Jews, so this was a pretty big statement to them.

Eventually, the Maccabees (led by a man named Judas Maccabeus) revolted and regained control of Jerusalem. And this is when Hanukkah began for the Jews. 

The Silent Years…

When did this happen you might you ask? During the 400 years between the Old Testament and the New Testament. (also ever wonder what testament means? It means covenant. So when we say Old Testament, it is the covenant before Christ… and with the New Testament, we mean the new covenant)

Anyway. Yes, although scripture doesn’t mention what happens during those 400 years, history didn’t stand still. And obviously a lot actually happened with the Israelites during that time, that shapes the condition of what was going on when Jesus was born.

First, we start with someone we have all heard of, Alexander the great, coming in and taking over a lot of territory, including the area around Jerusalem. The Greeks would rename this area Palestine, and this change also brought Greek influence, to what was once the Promised Land. This explains why the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New written in Greek… because I know you all wondered that (you’re welcome).

For the most part Alexander the great and the next few leaders allowed the Jews to keep their religious practices, but Greek influence began to clash with people’s loyalty to God, and public conflict and unrest grew.

Back to Antiochus…

This is where Antiochus stepped in, and I read that on top of the outlawing on Jewish traditions, he made their lives more unbearable. He only ruled 10 years, but was said to be evil. Not only did he sacrifice a pig on the altar in the temple, but he turned other rooms into brothels, and murdered thousands of Jewish women and children.

When the Maccabees revolted, they had a cleanse and rededication of the temple that took 8 days. The Festival of Lights. Hanukkah.

Their newfound freedom as an independent nation didn’t last long, because they were overtaken again this time by the Romans, and we find here the rule of more well-known people like Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and then the Herod’s. 

Now we get to right before the first Christmas.

In 37 BC, the Roman Senate named Idumean Herod the Great “King of the Jews”, and became the king of Israel. The Israelites probably weren’t too thrilled about this, because of his bloodline, however in hopes to smooth things over a bit with them, he married into Jewish bloodline and remodeled and expanded the temple lavishly. So when the disciples take note of the extravagance of the temple… they weren’t joking. I read that some of the stones were bigger than the cars we drive.

Herod the great, had an intense desire for power, and this is seen in scripture, when he hears that the Magi came looking for the “king of the Jews” shortly after Jesus was born. He obviously wasn’t too excited about this, as in his mind he was the designated king of the Jews, and that title wouldn’t be shared with anyone else, or taken away for anyone else.

I shared last week, this lead to Herod ordering all the boys under 2 years old near Bethlehem to be killed.

Why do I tell you all this?

Because it doesn’t seem fair, does it? That this would be the plan for God’s people. That everything would be constantly changing. The temple built for His glory, would be destroyed, built again, and then taken over by someone who would use it for anything but God’s glory. Then refurbished to try to appease God’s chosen people.

It doesn’t seem fair that the Israelites would be stripped of their religious rights that were put into place by God, and that honored God. Then appeased by a man appointed by man, the king of the Jews, who would try to win them over because he was desperate for power.

This is where everything stood when Jesus was born. No, it doesn’t seem fair. Not at all. 

The world this Christmas, and the One who came to bring us peace.

And many times, life doesn’t seem fair at all. We live in a world that everything keeps changing, and sometimes by the day. And life may not feel fair this Christmas either.

Yet, this was type of world Jesus entered into that first Christmas. He didn’t come to appease people, or win them over. Jesus came to show the world God’s love, and set the captives free. He was never worried that His reign would be overthrown because His rule is never ending. He is the King of king, Lord of lords, Prince of peace, Wonderful Counselor, and a humble servant.

Murder, and manipulation can never describe Jesus’ reign. Miracles, healings, grace, and truth do. He didn’t display His power by saving Himself from the cross. But by doing what only He could do, overcoming death, and walking out of the grave.

What kind of king would do this? A King whose authority came from God. And the kind of king who would show His devotion to His people by not trying to gain political power, but teaching and living out a new commandment. John 13:30, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

This was the true “King of the Jews.” The One appointed by God, Himself. This is the One who came at the first Christmas. The One who in a constantly changing world, is unchanging and whose kingdom is unshakeable. 

This is Emmanuel. With us, is God. The same God who is with us yesterday, today, and forever.

The One we get the privilege to serve. The One we celebrate this Christmas. 

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