By Gene Edward Veith
Have you ever stopped to think that Jesus was a real man, born at a precise time in history, under the reign of rulers we still study in history textbooks? There is something timeless about Christmas. We approach the season with nostalgia and happy memories, re-creating the past with family and church traditions. The nativity scenes, carols and Christmas cards depict the baby Jesus against a universal Background of snow, angels and "heavenly peace." To be sure, our Lord's incarnation applies to every time and place, and we are right to celebrate it as we do from generation to generation.
The Gospels situate the birth of Christ squarely within world history. "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). Rome may have ruled the known world, but the civil war that ended the Republic was still a recent memory.
Pompey the Great conquered Judea after a brutal siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C., and he became a bitter rival to another brilliant general, Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul. The power struggle between them grew into a civil war fought on a global scale, ending with Pompey's murder and Caesar's victory. When Caesar himself was assassinated by Roman senators trying to defend the Republic from the prospect of a new monarchy, a power struggle ensued. When Marc Anthony fell in love with the glamorous Egyptian queen Cleopatra and abandoned Rome so that he could be with her, Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, took over the city. After defeating the celebrity lovers, he made himself the supreme ruler and took the name Caesar Augustus.
His official title was "Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus" or "Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of God." The reference was to his adopted father Julius, who, after his death, had been declared divine. But Augustus would have seemed to fit the bill for a son of God far more than the Child who would soon be born in Bethlehem. By the time of Christ's birth, Augustus reigned supreme not only over Rome, but over Judea, all of Asia Minor, northern Africa, and much of Europe. His power, wealth, and influence were absolute and stood in stark contrast to the homeless Child laid in a manger.
Rome was a great civilization with a system of laws that continues to shape our legal code and a legacy of literature, education, and technology that we are building on even today. But morally, by the time of Christ's birth, the civilization was already going bankrupt. Prostitution was rampant and was socially acceptable. Homosexuality was widespread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Abortion and infanticide were commonplace. The ruling classes kept the masses entertained with blood sports, with gigantic arenas filled with spectators watching gladiators kill each other or cheering on the torture of criminals by burning, being devoured by wild animals, or being crucified.
Judea, of course, resisted the worst of Greco-Roman immorality, but the remnants of God's people of old were now a beaten down, occupied, and bitterly divided nation. The events that would bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem were put into motion by a census "when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:2). The efforts of Quirinius to number the people in his various districts struck many Judeans, thinking of David's sin in 2 Samuel 24, as a violation of God's law.
This provoked an out-and-out rebellion against the Romans, which was brutally crushed. This was the beginning of the Zealot movement, which would become one of the four religious factions that Jesus had to contend with: The Zealots wanted to overthrow the Romans and establish a theocracy based on the law of Moses. The Essenes wanted to separate from the world in semi-monastic communities until the Messiah would bring in the Last Judgment. The Sadducees wanted peace with the Romans, emphasizing the sacrificial rites of the Temple and teaching that there is no afterlife. The Pharisees and the Sadducees would agree only on opposing Jesus.
Jesus was born, says Matthew, "in the days of Herod the king" (Matt. 2:1). An Edomite who practiced Judaism, Herod was put in power by the Romans. He earned the title of "the Great" because of his ambitious building projects, including a major expansion and remodeling of the Temple in Jerusalem. But historians record that he was a vicious, cruel, and paranoid ruler, putting to death his wife and three of his own sons out of fear that they would take his throne. It was totally in character for Herod to slaughter the babies and two-year-olds of Bethlehem in an effort to stop the prophesied "king of the Jews." As Herod lay dying, when Jesus and His family were in Egypt, the king knew no one would morn him. So he summoned to court a group of distinguished citizens, giving the order that they all be killed upon his death so that the nation would weep upon his passing. Fortunately, his three sons, among whom the Romans divided his kingdom, rescinded that order, though they would turn out much like their father, especially Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist and who would play a role in Christ's crucifixion.
So that first Christmas was a time of social upheaval, political conflict, moral decay, recreational sex and violence, religious disunity and general hopelessness. Sound familiar? Christ came into darkness (John 1:5). And He still does. Through His Word and Sacraments, He breaks into our sin-wracked lives. In every age and throughout the course of a person's lifetime, He brings to us the redemption won by His incarnation, death, and resurrection. In that sense, Christmas really is timeless.
This article came from the pages of the Lutheran Witness.
For more Lutheran Witness Veith articles, check out this link.
Or, if you are wanting to read one of his shorter books, I highly suggest Loving God with All Your Mind.