When we think of Christmas, it is easy to imagine the scene of Jesus’s arrival as a joyous time for all involved. Instead, history shows us that Israel was a powder keg and Jesus was in many ways a match to light it.
Silent, But Not Calm
Over two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire firmly in control of most of the known world, Israel sat quietly–at least on the surface. Underneath the veneer of subservience, Israel seethed with regret, with holy aspirations, and with a tiny glimmer of hope. Their hope was for the renewed glory of Israel. They had had a taste when they miraculously threw off the yoke of Syrian captivity under the Seleucids. Their own internal conflicts, however, led them once again under the power of another. Unable to settle their own claims to leadership, they actually invited the Romans in to restore order. They did, by taking control of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. about fifty-seven years before Jesus’s birth.
Added to this politically tumultuous time was the fact that there had been no prophetic voice since the prophet Malachi almost four hundred years prior. Realizing that they had no hope of freedom on their own, they began to hope for the Messiah to rescue them. A lay group of men who wanted to purify themselves by following the Law of God perfectly emerged to help hasten the day. These men were the Pharisees.
The Silence Broken
It is in this climate of tension that John’s voice first emerged. He urged repentance and spoke of one to come of whom John was not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals (John 1:27 NLT). Although he looked strange and was not a part of the organized religion of the day, people flocked to hear him speak. They were moved by the power of his words and the power behind his words.
Though Jesus and John were cousins, we can assume they had no meeting until the day Jesus came to be baptized, as John had been raised in the desert by the Essenes. So when John sees Jesus for the first time, he prophecies, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NLT). The hoped-for Messiah had arrived, but He was not what they thought. He didn’t come to liberate them from their current external bondage but to liberate them from their internal bondage.
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