Congratulations—It’s a God!
Dr. Jim Denison
The third grade was staging their annual Christmas pageant. Finally it came time for the birth. Mary, hidden from the crowd by bales of hay, was making the sounds a third-grader might make to tell the audience what was happening. A boy appeared on stage, in a bathrobe with sandals, a stethoscope around his neck. He disappeared behind the hay bales, and reemerged with a bundle. He handed it to Joseph and said, “Congratulations—it’s a God!”
But God’s coming to us wasn’t as easy as the boy thought. His preparations for Christmas started long before Christmas. This morning we’ll learn what God did to get the world ready for his Son’s birth. We will study this subject together so that we can see the Christmas event as the first century Christians did.
And we will do this for a second reason: so we can be not just educated, but encouraged. The holidays may be chaotic for you; you may be pushed beyond what you think you can handle. Stress always goes up during the Christmas holidays; suicides and depression rates soar; loneliness becomes epidemic. Some of you are facing your first Christmas without someone you love; others are in a new or hard place. World events are troubling—school shootings continue, wars rage, uncertainty about the new year and the future mounts. And we’re all tired. These holy days can be hard days.
Despite it all, God is on the throne of our world. I want to prove that to you, and to anyone who is skeptical of God’s power and presence in our lives today.
How God prepared the world (4.4)
A twelve-year old boy wrote a letter to God which said, “Dear God, was there anything special about Bethlehem, or did you just figure that was as a good a place as any to start a franchise?” Bethlehem was far more than that. What happened there fulfilled plans God had made from the beginning of time. As Paul says, “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son” (4.4).
Here’s how the time “fully came.”
The first preparation was a universal cry for the Messiah.
When the Old Testament closes, the Persian Empire is in control, They have defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home. Cyrus and the Persians dominate the world. But when the New Testament opens, the Romans rule the world. What happened?
In 332 BC the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. The Jews overthrew Greek rule in 167 BC under Judas Maccabeus. But in 63 BC the Pharisees and Sadducees began a civil war which eventually destroyed the Jewish kingdom and led to Roman control. By the time the New Testament opens, the hated Romans have enslaved the Jews and all the nation cries out for a Messiah, the One who would free them and save their people. There’s a universal cry for the Messiah, the one born on Christmas day. But there’s more.
Next comes a universal language for the gospel. By the first century, for the first time in western history, one language dominated the culture—”koine” or “common” Greek. Let me illustrate. If you were to write the letters of the New Testament today, you would need to write Galatians and Ephesians in Turkish, the Corinthian and Thessalonian letters in Greek, Romans in Italian, and Hebrews in Hebrew. But when Christmas came, everyone understood Greek. The first Christian missionaries needed no language schools or interpreters. They could preach and write the gospel for everyone. But there’s more.
Next comes a universal peace.
Caesar Augustus brought political stability to the Empire and ended the disastrous civil wars which had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC Thus Christian missionaries could move about the known world in peace.
If you were to repeat the travels of the first Christian missionaries today, you’d have to move freely from Israel through Syria and Jordan, across Iraq and Iran, through Turkey and Greece, and across Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. You and I couldn’t do it today. But they could.
And there were universal roads upon which to make these travels. Augustus had developed the most comprehensive system of transportation the world had seen until this generation. Some of the roads built by him are still in use today–I’ve walked on them. Missionaries could travel with relative ease to any part of the known world. But there’s more.
Finally, there was a universal spiritual hunger across the world.
The Greek philosophers had led their society to the depths of intellectual frustration. Platonism and Aristotelianism were at war, while Stoicism, Epicurianism, Cynicism, and Skepticism fought with the mystery religions and ancient myths of the people. There was no sense of universal truth or right.
The Roman culture had sunk to the lowest levels of moral decay and collapse.
All the while, God had been scattering the Jewish people across the world to provide beachheads for preaching the gospel. They had brought their message of one God and his promised Messiah. The Romans had exempted them from Caesar worship and allowed them religious freedom as a “religio licita,” a legal religion. The Romans would apply this freedom to Christianity as a Jewish sect, until the faith had gained a foothold across the Empire.
Now God must move even more directly to get his Son to Bethlehem for his birth.
Micah 5:2 had announced that Christmas would come at this little village. But Mary lived in Nazareth, some eighty miles away—a very long distance in those days for travel by foot or donkey.
God prompted Augustus to take a census, so as to make taxation more efficient and effective. We know this census occurred in history—we have actual documents from such activities in the ancient world. And God has Augustus decree that each man or woman of the entire Empire must return to the city or village which is his ancestral home, where his family originated. And so millions of men and women and boys and girls ride and walk across the entire Empire to cities and villages across the known world, all so one young village girl could bring her unborn child to Bethlehem.