Seven centuries before the Incarnation Isaiah wrote: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: . . . and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6). Here is the prophet's forecast of Deity breaking into human history.
Yet when the Son of God came He wrote no life story. In fact, He left nothing in writing. What we know of His sojourn on the earth comes largely from four little books we call the Gospels. But only two of these tell anything about the Saviour's birth. The earliest of the biographers, Mark, makes no mention of either His birth or His childhood. Nor does John, the last of the group. Mark's principal interest seems to be in the events of Jesus' life, while Matthew concentrates rather on the teachings of our Lord. This erstwhile businessman evidently kept a diary in which he entered from time to time the conversations and teachings of his Master. His record is slanted decidedly for Jewish Christians. The frequency of Old Testament quotations, the importance he attaches to the Mosaic law, his emphasis on the Jewish Messianic hope, reveal clearly the purpose of his writing.
From Outcast to Evangelist
In telling the story of his own conversion he simply states that he was "sitting at the feet of custom." He was therefore a tax gatherer. As such he was socially ostracized; a man who had sold his country, his conscience, and probably his character to the hated Romans—the last kind of a man one would expect to play an important role as an evangelist, much less an ambassador of the new kingdom. But to this man we are indebted for several important incidents concerning the birth of Jesus, which he linked definitely with Isaiah's prophecy.
Luke, the other evangelist who deals with our Saviour's birth, was the only one of the four who was not a Jew. His is decidedly a missionary book, in which Christ is set forth not primarily as the Messiah of Israel but as the Saviour of the world. While Matthew in his genealogy goes back to Abraham, the founder of Israel, Luke goes back to Adam, the founder of the race.
The last of these Gospel writers, 'John, seems to have had an entirely different purpose in his wonderful account. He begins with the tremendous fact that the One whom we call Jesus of Nazareth was one with the Father from all eternity. Deity "was made flesh, and dwelt among us," or to be more exact, was "tabernacled among us." Here John refers to a kindly custom in the Middle East. When a caravan is preparing to move forward, those who will form the group come and pitch their tents beside one another. If one wants to accompany the group he can make his request and be assured of a welcome. "Pitch your tent here beside ours," they will say, "and be ready to move with us in two days." When the caravan moves, this newcomer goes along with them as a part of the company. And that is exactly what Deity did when He came to dwell with men.
God's Entrance Into the Human Family
"Christ set up His tabernacle in the midst of our human encampment. He pitched His tent by the side of the tents of men, that He might dwell among us, and make us familiar with His divine character and life. 'The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us.' "—The Desire of Ages, p. 23.
But how the eternal God made His entrance into the human family is told beautifully by Matthew, a businessman, and Luke, a physician.
Paul, the apostle, also adds something to the story when he says: "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman" (Gal. 4:4). When Jesus came it was "the fulness of the time" politically. Rome had unified the world. Closed frontiers were things of the past. The time when self-sufficient, antagonistic nations that would eye one another suspiciously was all in the past, for the whole of the ancient world from the Atlantic to the Caspian, from the British Isles to the Nile, frOm Hadrian's wall to the Euphrates, was now one. All over the world Roman standards were waving, for politically it was one big neighborhood.
He Came Just in Time
At this Christmas season we do well to emphasize the divine movings in human history. Had Christ come a century earlier the heralds of the gospel would have been impeded by a multitude of national barriers. They would also have been opposed by pirates who made the high seas iinpassable.
Had He come a century or two later He would have found civilization so preoccupied with the struggle against barbarian hordes from the north that few indeed would have had an ear for "the good news." But He came at a time when Rome held the world in her grip; a peace reigned, albeit an enforced peace. Moreover, the empire had knit the world into a unity by its network of roads. Little did those tens of thousands of laborers who made those highways realize they were preparing a way for God's messengers to carry the most revolutionary news ever heard. When Caesar's legions built those imperial roads of communication, it then became possible for the gospel to be carried quickly to the very ends of the earth. And the proclamation of the new way of life spread like a prairie fire fanned by the winds of the Spirit.
The hour became auspicious also because Greek was understood throughout the then-known world. Wherever those first preachers went they could proclaim their messages to the people in the exactness of the Greek language, for practically all were bilingual. Greek was known almost as well in the heights of Galatia as on the streets of Athens, in Spain or Northern Africa as well as in Rome.
Another factor was the economic preparation. While some members of the empire were extremely wealthy and magnificance was seen on every hand, yet, beside the luxury of that day was a seething unrest, for poverty stalked the streets.
Some historians declare that three fifths of the populace of Rome at that time were slaves, just chattels with a voice, yet with no voice in their government. Everywhere the economic situation seemed to be facing a crisis. War, colossal extravagance, taxation both civil and religious, were crushing the inhabitants of city and country alike, and they longed for deliverance. Anxiety was written deep upon men's countenances. Their hearts were burdened, the world was a prison, and escape was impossible. Yet, in that black hour a voice of hope rang out in Galilee declaring a new way of life. The empire seemed to have sinned away its day of grace, and the freshness and dew of youth had fled. Men and women grew old before their time. Religion offered no comfort, for "the old gods of Rome were either dead or dying." Despite the fact that a whole new batch of deities from the East had been imported to Rome to stir the imagination of men, yet the philosophers of that time made a joke of it all and mocked Olympus where the gods were supposed to dwell. To reactivate the spirit of reverence for the gods, Caesar worship was introduced. "But what could the divinity of Caesar say to a soul stabbed with the remorse of sin?"
These were the conditions that made the gospel such tremendous news in the early decades of Christian history. It was indeed "the fulness of the time." The hour had struck. It was "the day of the Lord." Announced by angels and welcomed by the populace, Jesus Christ rode quietly into the hearts of men.
Bethlehem, the Launching Site of World Religion
The fact that Bethlehem and Nazareth and Calvary became the cradle of the Christian faith was not haphazard. For the launching of a world religion, no place could have been better suited. In the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem guides will today point to a spot declaring it to be the center of the earth. A strange and fantastic claim, yet in a sense Palestine is the geographical center, for it links three great continents —Europe, Asia, and Africa. And it was to this land and its people that God sent His son.
At that time Palestine was full of externalized religion, making it something of outward observance rather than of the heart. The scribes had professionalized religion. They were dry ecclesiastics. The Sadducees had secularized religion. Skeptical and worldly, they dominated the Temple services. Then there were the zealots who nationalized religion, their one consuming ambition being to overthrow Rome and establish Jewry.
But among all these different groups were some, the Simeons and the Annas of that day, who were "just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel." The soul of Israel was kept alive by no official party. The real saviors of Israel were often humble, obscure, devout people, such as the shepherds. When the Saviour appeared they recognized Him.
Among those waiting for Heaven's Gift were also wise men, teachers of kings, wise enough to sense their need of a Saviour, yet humble enough to follow a star even to tiny Bethlehem. Someone has well observed that only two classes recognized the Lord of glory when He came—the simple and the learned; the simple because they know they know nothing and the learned because they know they do not know everything. No matter how much we may know, there are always oceans of knowledge beyond our widest thoughts. "Divinity is so profound it can be grasped only by the extremes of simplicity and wisdom."
Then during this happy season let us as wise guides, made wise by the Word, lead our hearers once again to Bethlehem. Help them to ponder anew Heaven's wondrous Gift to a lost race.
R. A. A.