— Galatians 4:4
The phrase the fullness of time is ripe with expectancy…waiting…longing. It brings to mind a convict in his cell leaning against the barred window and wistfully watching the sun set. Another day is done, one less day to be served. Perhaps that was what Paul was imagining when he penned those words. A captive world bound and chained by sin anxiously awaiting its promised Redeemer. Clearly this is how the Jews felt as they struggled under the thumb of Rome and Herod.
Though most people ascribe the Book of Daniel to the period of the Babylonian Exile (586-536 BC), there are some who would have us believe it to be much newer than that. They say it was composed during the Maccabean period, more precisely in the time of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes (175-164 BC). However, the date of the Book of Daniel is not relevant to this discussion. We know that Jesus made a specific reference to a passage from Daniel in Matthew 24:15 when he said, “So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place…” This validates both the Book and its existence in the First Century.
We also know that apocalyptic literature of all kinds was very popular during that period of time. As much as anything it was probably a backlash to high taxes and oppressive rulers. The Messianic hope reached a fever pitch in the early 1st Century. Several sections of the Book of Daniel contain Messianic predictions. The primary one being the prophecy of the seventy weeks in Daniel 9:24-27.
Like all prophetic writings, as specific as it sounds, it still required interpretation. When did one begin counting the weeks? What was to occur when this period time had elapsed? Some would say it would mark the arrival of the Messiah, but in what form? Would that be the date of his birth, the beginning of his ministry/revolt, the declaration of his kingdom? Things were just obscure enough to allow for multiple opinions. Consequently, a number of Messianic Pretenders arose around the time of the birth of Christ. Their appearance and almost instant success in gathering a conquering army was no doubt motivated as much by frustration as by prophecy.
Messiahs aside, there were other factors that had to be in place and, in retrospect; we can see the hand of God moving the various playing pieces into position. Astronomers have developed a set of criteria necessary for a planet to support life. Without factors such as a temperate climate, oxygen, liquid water and so on, life as we know it, whether created or evolved, can never exist. Perhaps it would be helpful to draw up a similar list of factors required for any Messianic movement to grow and flourish. First of all, the people had to be open to the message. While readiness may be hard to quantify, we can make several observations.
Though the presumption among Jews was that the Messiah would be a warrior king, the message Jesus brought was spiritual not temporal. This meant that there had to be a certain level of intellectual curiosity, if you will, about spiritual matters. The first century was a time of wildly divergent religious beliefs. As the Romans annexed territory, they also assimilated the local gods of that region into their pantheon of divinities. This combined with a general freedom of worship meant that a person could explore any and all alternatives.
Plato and Aristotle developed the idea of a soul, or spiritual essence, that was immortal. The rise of philosophies such as Hedonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism which generally rejected the established gods created a spiritual void while the mystery cults emphasized a savior-god and required worshipers to offer blood sacrifices, making the gospel of Christ which involved a single ultimate sacrifice acceptable.
All the spiritual hunger in the world won’t do you much good if your core group is dispersed and inaccessible. The Jews went through a general in-gathering in the years preceding the birth of Christ. The existence of the Temple in Jerusalem and the requirement that all adult males return to celebrate the Pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkoth meant that those believers who were geographically distant could still keep up with the latest happenings and newest ideas. The passage in Acts 2:9 relating to Pentecost lists sixteen different nationalities, or language groups, present in the city for the Festival who heard Peter speak. Having heard, these people could carry that message (gossip) back to where they’d come from.
It would difficult, if not impossible, to disperse a message across an area consisting of competing kingdoms, city states, petty fiefdoms and territories ruled by war lords and tribal chieftains. This is the primary reason the Roman Empire stalled in its conquest of northern Europe. These are the conditions the Romans encountered as they moved into areas such as Ireland, Scotland, and Germany…areas they never subdued. The Germanic tribes, in fact, inflicted the greatest military defeat Rome ever experienced when they slaughtered three Roman Legions plus six cohorts of auxiliaries and three squadrons of cavalry in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Hadrian built his famous wall from the North Sea to the Irish Sea in an attempt to stop incursions by the Picts of Northern Scotland.
|Ancient Roman Bridges Are Still in Use in Many Parts of Europe|
As Rome built its Empire, it inherited a culture left behind by the Greeks. Most of the Empire was multi-lingual, speaking two, if not three, languages. While the affairs of the Empire were conducted in Latin and the average person in the Holy Land spoke Aramaic, Greek served as a common unifying language that facilitated trade and commerce. Apostles carrying the message of Christianity were easily able to communicate regardless of the locale they found themselves in.
As the Roman Empire grew, the necessity to rapidly move troops from one area to another became a necessity. Rome attacked the problem by constructing a network of highways throughout the land. Upon conquering an area one of the first things the Romans did was build forts along the perimeter and link them with all-weather roads of stone block over a base of gravel. Rome recruited its army from the provinces and shifted the men from on region to another. It made good sense not to conscript an army from your former enemies and then go home and leave them in charge, much better to have Britons in Gaul, Macedonians in Syria and so on. As Rome shifted troops, they also disseminated cultural and religious beliefs. The earliest introduction of the gospel to Britannia was the result of the efforts of Christian soldiers stationed there.
It has been said that everyone participates in God’s plan, some willingly and some unknowingly.
Given man’s limited scope, most of the time we find it impossible to see the good that God extracts from evil. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything worthwhile coming from the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, et al. And yet, the same thing can be said for Caligula, Nero, Domitian or Diocletian. Even with a 2,000 year perspective it’s still difficult to make sense of the actions of such despots.And yet God, with his eternal perspective and omniscient power, can arrange the affairs of this chaotic world in such way as to accomplish his goals…in the fullness of time.
Our study of Christmas continues next time with an ancient recipe for a Christmas Fruitcake.Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.