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Historical and Religious Background
Of Christ's Time on Earth

Jesus Christ, God the Son has visited mankind for the sole purpose of fulfilling God the Father's plan of redemption.  Two millennia ago He spent a relatively short period of time here but has completely turned man's destiny around.  In order to better understand His impact on man I think it would be beneficial to take a look at some history leading up to His incarnation and the religious environment into which He came.  In spite of the unfavorable conditions for His first advent, He did carry out the Father's plan and at the same time had a wonderful impact on the lives of individuals.  Even before His advent, He visited men and women.  His life-transforming visits are called "Christophanies" by many theologians.   That is, God the Son did visit men before His incarnation resulting in the major historical and spiritual imprint of His hand in the affairs of men - namely, before His visits, men were completely engulfed in a hopeless, hell-bound destiny.  After His visitations, His "Christophanies,"  the destiny of men was forever changed toward the favorable not the calamitous.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; [4] What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?    Psalm 8:3-4

Because of the Person of Christ, man may now enjoy the hope of eternal life in the future and the blessing of relative prosperity in the here and now.  All because every element, every detail of history is bent toward the salvation of man - that is all that matters about history, nations, families and the individual.   Man is now born to be evangelized by the Gospel - that is his only purpose - to be evangelized and to give glory to God as a result.  But it took the "meddling" of Jesus Christ to accomplish this.  Let us take a brief look at the historical background leading up to His incarnation and then the religious   surrounding His earthly visit.

Historical Background.

The Word of God is silent for about 400 years between the writing of the last book of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus.  During that time many events occurred that shaped the nation of Israel - many events that led to a very hostile setting for His life here on earth.  Nevertheless, there were men who were spiritually hungry for the Messiah - the Anointed One who was to redeem not only Israel but, as revealed during the church age, all of men.

The Assyrian / Babylonian captivities.

As the result of Solomon's heavy taxation and the foolish decision of Rehoboam, his son, to continue to rule in an oppressive way, the northern tribes of Israel decided to secede from Judah.[1]   The tribe of Benjamin defended the cause of Judah during the fracturing of this confederation and eventually the two tribes Judah and Benjamin formed the nation of Judah[2] with the rest of the ten tribes to the north forming the nation of Israel.  As events unfolded Israel to the north established her own religious centers in Dan and Bethel, old cities situated at the extreme ends of the new splinter northern kingdom.  This set the stage for great apostasy for  the Levites fled to Judah[3] after Jeroboam instituted pagan religious practices. 

The fall of Israel.  Jeroboam's apostasy was very tragic because he in no way could say that Jehovah had arbitrarily abandoned him.   He, himself, was the recipient of great promise from the prophet Ahijah representing Jehovah.  The promise was this: Jeroboam would enjoy the same blessings as the house of David - Jeroboam's dynasty would be as sure as David's if he would walk in Jehovah's ways[4] - no small assurance of security in the days where whole dynasties were eliminated at the hand of violence.  But he did not harken to the voice of the prophet - rather, he went completely the other way and actively removed all vestiges of Jehovah's sovereignty from the northern tribes and in its place set up pagan worship.  This set the stage for the captivities first for Israel because of her early and great apostasy and second for Judah who was also caught up in paganism.  Israel's captivity was more of a gradual event, first under the rule of Pekah (2 Ki 15:25) and later under the rule of Hoshea (2 Ki 17:4-6).[5] The remarkable point of Israel's fall is that there was such great promise for the northern tribes.   They were given the opportunity of a great dynasty in Jeroboam.  His dynasty should have carried Israel the great heights of prosperity and blessing from Jehovah.   All this was thrown away by the rebellion of Jeroboam who led Israel in unimaginable apostasy.  The time span for the complete removal of Israel's fall took over 150 years - plenty of time for repentance - there were no shortage of prophets - the fault for Israel's fall lies squarely on the people.  As for Jeroboam his dynasty, which had so much promise, it was to come to a horrible end in a power struggle.[6]  The process finally came to an end in approximately 700 BC, even then some stragglers were left to be taken during Esarhaddon's reign of 681 - 668 BC.[7]

The fall of Judah. 

Judah had a similar circumstance.  Their process started around 705 BC with Sennarcacherib of Assyria but ended with the capture of King Zedikiah in 586 BC where his sons were killed (2 Ki 25:7).  They then put out his eyes and was led off in captivity to Babylon.  Jerusalem was seiged and captured - the Temple was razed along with the walls of the city and all the houses.  You can read the tragic account in 2 Kings 25:6 - 21 where all that mattered to the Jewish way of life was destroyed or removed, including their chief priest.  The destruction was complete and Judah was to remain under the rule of the rule of Babylon and other world powers thereafter either in complete subjugation or with favorable treatment as a client nation.

The Return of Judah from Babylonian and Persian Captivity.

(See Ezera 5:1, 6:14)
CAMBYSES 530 - 522 NOT REFERRED TO IN O.T. ---------

The return of the Jews[8]  was accomplished in three phases.   The first company returned under Zerubbabel, a prince of Judah.  The returning Jews consisted of less than 50,000 men, women and children.  The remaining Jews were to contribute money for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The work was hindered by some non-jews who after having their offer to help the Jews rebuild the Temple refused, achieved an order from the king of Persia that caused the work to be stopped.  The second company returned under Ezra, a scribe, who gained permission from the king to return to Jerusalem.  He brought with him a small band of dedicated men along with a large number of gold and silver vessels belonging to the Temple.  Upon his return he discovered that the Jews had departed from sound Jewish practices.  For three months he stirred up the consciences of the people and in effect was instrumental in a "revival."[9]  The third phase was lead by Nehemiah.  Having obtained a leave of absence from the king of Persia, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem some 93 years after the return of   Zerubbabel.  So after all this time the feast of the Tabernacles was restored.   Nehemiah 6 - 8 makes for exciting reading of the final restoration of Judah albeit it as a client nation of Persia.

The Order of the Prophets

  1. Before the Captivities -  to the ten tribes of Israel: Amos, Hosea, Obadiah, Joel.

  2. Before the Captivities - to the two tribes of Judah:   Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah

  3. During the exile in Babylon - Ezekiel, Daniel

  4. After the Exile - Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

The Silent 400 years between Malachi and the coming of the Messiah.

During the writing of Malachi and the coming of the Messiah there were no prophets sent from Jehovah to the Jews.  We do know something of Jewish history from extra-biblical sources.  Josephus contains a lot of information.   Israel spent her days mostly as a client nation.  Many times favored especially by Persia and later by Egypt, namely from the Ptolemaic rule.  The City of Alexander had a group of Jews how were eventually Hellenized - the Septuagint a Greek of the Old Testament, also including the apocrypha, was written for these Jews.

The Jews were once again lured into pagan practices from the Hellenistic thought and the monotheistic religion of the Persians to the point that Jewish religion had been mostly tainted with a system of works (the giving of alms, for example) and a system of interpreting the Torah.

The mix of politics and religion was filled with intrigue and abandoning Jehovah.  Peace was established by treaties with Judah's neighbors.   For a while Antiochus Epiphanes treated the Jews with favor.  Jason a Hellenistic high priest introduced the Greek gymnasium and other practices that were contrary to the customs of the Jews.  Eventually Antiochus Epiphanes turned against the Jews treating them most cruelly.  The culmination of this treatment came when he slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews and sacrificed a pig on the altar.  At one point, observance of the Jewish religion was a  capital offence.  This oppression led to the revolt of the Maccabean dynasty.  For a relatively short period of time proper worship in the Temple was restored but soon through a compromise with the Romans Israel was once more under the rule of a foreign government which brings us up to the time of Christ's birth.

Characterization of the religious and political environment at Christ's birth.

Judah was a client nation of Rome at the time of Christ's birth.   Because of this Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to be recorded in census for taxation purposes.  There was a wide range of political views within the Jewish political structure. 

The Sadducees believed in the status-quo.   They were of the aristocracy.  They did not believe in the Oral Law - the writings of the fathers, nor did they believe in the resurrection.  Their chief interest was in preserving their prosperity.  They did not oppose Jesus until political complications led them to do so at the end of His ministry.  They were the ruling power in the Sanheedren at the time of Christ.

The Pharisees resisted foreign influence and were zealous for their oral and written traditions.  This party was patriotic and orthodox - meaning that they held to the traditional with fervor.  Jesus met opposition from the beginning because of His rejection of the traditions from the beginning - discriminating the traditions from the Scriptures.

The Scribes (Rabbis) were closely associated with the people everywhere.  They were the party who interpreted the traditions for the people.  There is a long history of the "writings of the fathers" from which the Talmud was derived.  But the Scribes were the ones who interfaced with the people mostly.  They were the ones who built a "hedge" around the Mosaic law so much so that they would crush out the spirit of true Jewish religion.

Other sects included the Essenes, the Herodians, and the Zealots but time does not permit covering their distinctives here.  Suffice it to say that Judah was greatly fragmented with regard to their religion and their politics.  Rome always considered Judah a troublesome country and eventually in 70 AD Judah was overrun, the Herod's temple was completely destroyed and the people dispersed once again.

A Strange mix of Interest in the Messiah
At the time of Christ.

The message of the suffering Messiah was completely lost in the apostate Jewish religion.  Because of over 400 years of a wide-ranging domination of Judah by different foreign powers, Jewish leaders were focused on a political Messiah who would drive out Rome and perhaps even crush their eventual enemy thereby giving them not only political freedom but economic and world dominance.

In spite of this there was a small number of spiritually hungry men and women who welcomed Christ, but tragically, most of Judah rejected Him as recorded in the Gospel of John

He came unto his own, and his own received him not. [12] But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:   John 1:11-12

Please bear in mind that the Gospel of John was written for the Jew as well as the church - the important point here is while reception of Jesus Christ as Messiah was widely rejected by the Jews, many still did receive Him and those people come from a broad spectrum of social backgrounds - Nicodemus was a Pharisee, while many of the diseased were of social necessity poor because to be diseased was to receive social rejection and hence a way to make a living.  Gamaliel, the revered teacher of the law seemed to be sympathetic to the cause of Christ.[10]

A short shapshot of the true Jew who looked for the Messiah. 

There a couple of narratives in the Gosple of Luke 2:25 - 32 that may give us insight to a minority of the believing Jew of the time.  Simeon, a devout man - apparently not an "official" prophet who had been prompted by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died - this gives some insight into the believing Jew of the time.  The prophetess Anna  was mentioned in Luke 2:36 - 38.  She gave testimony that Jesus was the baby who would grow up to be the redeemer of Israel.

Here is a short, inadequate snapshot of the times leading up to birth of Christ.  I hope it will allow us to see a little of what He faced during His ministry here.  It will hopefully allow us to see the courage of those who followed Him as believers and how He must have changed their lives.

1. See 2 Chron. 10; 1 Kings 12:1-15.

2. 2 Chron 11:1, 3, 5-12 (especially verse 12).

3.  2 Chron 11:14-17.

4.  1 Kings 11:38 "And it shall be, if thou wilt hearken unto all that I command thee, and wilt walk in my ways, and do that is right in my sight, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did; that I will be with thee, and build thee a sure house, as I built for David, and will give Israel unto thee."  Read verses 29 - 31.

5. Read also 2 Kings 17:7-18.

6. Read 1 Kings 14:7-16 (you may want to use NIV or NAS for this passage).

7.  Unger's Bible Dictionary, pg 181.

8.  Named so, because most of those returning were of the tribe of Judah.

9.  Ezra 4.

10.   See Acts 5:34-41.