FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 15, number 51, December 22, 2016
“Behold the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which translated means, ‘God with us.'” -Matthew 1:23
Glory to God in the Highest
The fall of the Babylonian empire to the Medo-Persians was prophesied by Daniel (Daniel 8), followed by the rise of the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great who died in 323 B.C. at the age of thirty-three. After Alexander’s death the kingdom in the region of Syria, Judea, and Egypt was divided into two parts, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Judea served as a kind of buffer and experienced some measure of autonomy and freedom of religion at the time. Antiochus Epiphanes (215 B.C. to 164 B.C.) attacked the Ptolemies in Egypt and while there the people of Jerusalem rose up against him, killing the High Priest Antiochus had established there. In revenge Antiochus attacked Jerusalem, killing 40,000 people and sending another 40,000 into slavery. He also demanded the worship of Zeus and desecrated the temple by having pigs sacrificed on the altar, the so-called Abomination of Desolation. The Hellenization of the Jewish culture was fully in play by 164 B.C. when Judas Maccabeus initiated a Jewish revolt which drove out the Greeks. The Jews celebrate this event with Hanukkah, which in Hebrew means “rededication,” referring to the rededication of the second temple. For a brief period there was a revival, so to speak, of Jewish nationalism under the Maccabeans but division and worldliness eventually weakened their resolve. In place of the Maccabeans came the rule of the Romans, beginning in 63 B.C. when Pompey the Great conquered Jerusalem. After Julius Caesar’s assassination in March, 44 B.C., Octavius, later named Caesar Augustus, eventually came to power. Herod, an Idumean and nominal Jew, narrowly escaped murder and made his way to Rome to solicit support from the Roman Senate. The Senate, at the direction of Augustus, appointed Herod the King of Judea, and gave him an army. He was the King of the Jews, supposedly following in the line of King David. On the one hand Herod I, or Herod the Great, accomplished some amazing construction projects. He rebuilt Solomon’s temple on a grand scale. It had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. He also built the fortress at Masada and the port at Caesarea Maritima. But Herod was also a bloodthirsty, jealous man, who suspected nearly everyone in his family of plotting against him to take his crown from him. Early in his reign he murdered forty-five nobles, and from about 35 B.C. to 4 B.C. he had murdered, among many others-Aristobulus III, his brother-in-law, Mariamme I, his first wife, her two sons (Alexander and Aristobulus), and Mariamme’s mother, Alexandra. At his death his divided was into four parts and his son Herod Antipas, responsible for killing John the Baptist, was made a tetrarch. At the birth of Jesus around 6 B.C., Judea and Israel were then living under the reign of Caesar Augustus of the Roman Empire and the local King of Judea, Herod I. There were numerous attempts at overthrowing the Roman authorities in those days, but all were severely and quickly crushed. Life was hard in Israel at the time.
And at that time, what Paul the apostle calls the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared to a young virgin (probably no more than fourteen years old) named Mary, who was of the house and lineage of David. She lived in the remote and obscure town of Nazareth in Galilee, to the north of Jerusalem. Galilee lay in a fertile region of the country, a relatively flat area which had served as the site of many strategic military battles in the history of Israel. Far to the north one could see snow capped Mount Hermon. To the west one could see Mount Carmel, the site of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. To the east one could see Mount Tabor. People in Jerusalem looked down upon Galilee and Nazareth, disdaining the people there as culturally, racially, and religiously inferior. Indeed, later Nathanael asked when hearing about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). But the city was one of the training centers for priests and it was on the thoroughfare, the lower Galilean road, which traveled east and west, bringing many peoples from diverging cultures and religions to the town.
Luke tells us of the miraculous conception of John, whose mother Elizabeth was aged. In the sixth month of her pregnancy the angel Gabriel (Gabriel is mentioned in Daniel 8:16, 9:21, and Luke 1:19, 26) was sent from God to an obscure city in Galilee called Nazareth. Gabriel the angel came to a young virgin named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, who was of the house and lineage of David. Gabriel said to Mary, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Luke tells us that Mary was greatly perplexed by this statement and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be. Gabriel then said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” It is easy to see why she was afraid. Daniel was too when he met Gabriel. “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.”
Mary, of course, was stunned, perplexed, and troubled even more. How can this be, she asked, since she was a virgin? To this Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason, the holy child shall be called the Son of God. . . for nothing will be impossible with God.”
You know the story well, but here’s the main point-in a time of great darkness, distress, and despair in the land of Judea, God sent His promised Son, Jesus, who came to save His people from their sins. The name “Jesus” is mentioned three times in these two texts.
In the present day world of ubiquitous “Holiday Season” songs on the radio of dreaming of a white Christmas, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and Santa Claus is coming to town; in the good cheer of the Hallmark Christmas movies which leave us with the impression that Christmas is all about families spending time with each other and doing nice things for people; we do well to never lose sight of the miracle and necessity of the virgin conception and birth of our blessed savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was made incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and was made human. He was crucified for us. He died and was buried. He rose again for our justification. He and He alone can save us from our sins.
Celebrate His incarnation. Even if you are presently experiencing great sadness and sorrow, perhaps at the loss of loved ones in the last year, your hope is always in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.
1. His real name was Mithridates but he named himself Antiochus Epiphanes which means”God Manifest.”
2. Many assume Jesus was born in 1 B.C. That’s when Dionysius Exiguus set our calendar at B.C. and A.D. But we know Herod I died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the murder of the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem, after the magi has visited him on their way to pay homage to the Christ child.
3. Betrothal was more than our idea of engagement. It was a formal commitment of a couple to each other, signified by a formal declaration before family and friends. Unfaithfulness to the betrothal was considered adultery and breaking the betrothal was executed by divorce. The couple was considered married but were not sexually intimate. Later came the wedding feast, followed at some point by the marriage bed.