If you know a little about the birth of Jesus, it might be best for you to forget it and start from scratch.
The Christmas story has been so sanitized and romanticized over the centuries that even Hollywood—as jaded a culture as can be found anywhere—always fails to capture the gritty pathos that surrounded Jesus's arrival. Truth be told, even some churches annually idealize the birth of our Savior. Yet it was anything but ideal.
Without question, 6 BC was a lousy time to live in Judea. Herod the Great had seized the throne of Israel through bloody intrigue and with political support from Rome. Then, once in power, he guarded his stolen title, "King of the Jews," so ruthlessly he even put his own sons to death when any of them posed a significant political threat. Macrobius, a fifth-century writer, recorded, "When [Caesar Augustus] heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king's son was among those killed, he said, 'I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son!'"¹
Caesar's comment illustrated the sad irony of Israel's condition. Herod, though not really Jewish, pretended to be a good religious Jew by eliminating pork from his diet, but he indulged an insatiable appetite for power. He built a magnificent temple for the God of Israel—an architectural wonder in its day—and gave its administration to one corrupt high priest after another. He taxed Jews through the temple in keeping with the Old Testament Law and then used the proceeds to break the first commandment, building cities and temples in honor of the emperor and his pantheon of Roman deities.
The larger Roman Empire—bounded on the west by the Atlantic . . . on the east by the Euphrates . . . on the north by the Rhine and Danube . . . and on the south by the Sahara Desert—was as vast as it was vicious. Political intrigue, racial tension, increased immorality, and enormous military might dominated everyone's attention and conversation. Judea existed under the crush of Rome's heavy boot. It was a time of unprecedented economic and political advancement for the rich and a time of horrific oppression for everyone else. By the first century BC, a dark cloud had settled over Israel, blocking any ray of hope.
The first Christmas, all eyes were on Augustus—the cynical Caesar who demanded a census so as to determine a measurement to enlarge taxes even further. At that time, who was interested in a young couple making an 80-mile trip south from Nazareth? What could possibly be more important than Caesar's decisions in Rome . . . or his puppet Herod's edicts in Judea? Who cared about a Jewish baby born in a Bethlehem barn?
God did. As the New Testament reminds us:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4–5
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of "the fullness of time." He was a pawn in the hand of God . . . a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw . . . in a stable . . . under a star. The world didn't even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great . . . Herod the Great . . . and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.
It still does.
As they were in Jesus's day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economic, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the "fullness of time" to occur . . . so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: "Our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases" (Psalm 115:3).
In my 50 years of ministry, I have never been more committed than I am today to pointing our generation to the Word of God. It remains the only source of strength and divine direction during these difficult days. Whenever I can, I challenge pastors and leaders in ministry to recommit themselves to practical, expository preaching and teaching from the Scriptures. With the same urgency, I exhort you—wherever God has placed you—to live out the truth of God's Word before your family and neighbors through evangelism, Bible study, and memorization of God's Word.
Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, we are encouraging our readers and listeners to reflect—just as Mary did—on what God is doing in their lives—on a special message or important truth. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face?
Political corruption . . . religious compromise . . . economic crises—these will always be on the front page. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world . . . and in our lives.