We left off last week with Greece pulling out of Israel because of the Romans rising in power and the Maccabean revolt in Jerusalem. Israel was now a free country for the first time since the two captivities. They were free both religiously and politically.
Because of their restored religious freedom, the Temple was decontaminated following Antiochus Epiphanes’ Abomination of Desolation. The pig he sacrificed to Zeus on the altar of God left the Temple desecrated for 25 years.
After the Temple was re-consecrated and religious duties resumed, the religious leaders of Israel created a new religious order called the Pharisees who were charged with structuring the Mosaic Law into rules and enforcing compliance. It seems the religious leaders finally realized God would not protect the Temple if the people neglected God’s laws and expectations.
The Pharisees were to keep the people right with God. They started with honorable intentions, but their tactics became harsh. After searching the OT, they found everything Moses said that they could fashion into a law. At final count they came up with 613 rules they determined were necessary for someone to obey, so that person could be right with God. The problem was the means became more important than the end. By their system, it would be the achievement of works not the appropriation of faith that would earn God’s favor. Instead of blessing the people in their desire to be right with God, they placed on them a burden from which there was no release.
There were a couple of benefits from all this: It kept religious duty as a priority so they wouldn’t neglect the Temple again. It also kept alive the anticipation that the Messiah would come soon because of prophetic fulfillment through Antiochus Epiphanes.
Their religious freedom led to the extremes of the Pharisees. Their political freedom led to extremes as well. Two men from the ruling class within Israel both wanted to be King. To help make that possible, one of the men, Aristobulus, sought help from the new, rising world power, Rome. Hoping to get in good with them, but also thinking they could present the force needed to place him on the throne, Aristobulus invited Rome to come into Jerusalem.
But as promised by the prophecy of Daniel, the Romans would be the iron of the statue, the strongest, most powerful and victorious of the conquerors. Rome was under the authority of Pompey the Great, a powerful general who had risen as a military and political leader of Rome.
Instead of helping Aristobulus take the throne, Pompey would carry out his practice of engaging in war for ‘the love of power and wealth’ and of plundering royal palaces as if he had been sent, 'not to subdue the kings, but to strip them – an accusation made by the Roman Senate.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote: Now the occasion of this misery which came upon Jerusalem were Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, by raising a sedition one against the other; for now we lost our liberty, and became subject to the Romans, and were deprived of that country which we had gained by our arms – a reference to the Maccabean revolt.
In 63 B.C. the Roman army, led by Pompey, took Israel captive. God’s people will now live under the rule of Rome until they are run out of their country in 70 A.D. when the Romans destroy the Temple for the final time.
Instead of crowning Aristobulus, Pompey had him imprisoned. Interesting side note: Julius Caesar who was the rising star of Rome during Pompey’s reign, freed Aristobulus to deliberately undermine Pompey and gain favor with the Jews. Out of spite, men loyal to Pompey poisoned Aristobulus before he could get out of Israel and into freedom.
Soon after the take-over, the political skies of Rome grew dark. It is common in government takeovers that men commit atrocities in the name of loyalty. Julius Caesar was on the move to become Rome’s first Emperor. He defeated Pompey at a battle in Greece causing Pompey to flee to Egypt. As Pompey stepped out of his boat on the shore, three of his own men assassinated him, removed his head from his body and presented it to Julius Caesar. It repulsed Caesar but opened the door of the Empire to him. With Pompey having been the only obstacle to the throne, Julius Caesar now declared himself Emperor in 48 B.C. But he only reigned six years. You’ll remember he died after asking Brutus if he had eaten yet. Et tu Brute?
After Caesar was assassinated, the Roman Senate appointed a triumvirate – three men to serve as a ruling committee. Shortly afterward the Senate also appointed Herod the Great as King of the Jews around 40 B.C. Herod was a loyal subject of Rome, though as a Jew he did have legitimate blood connections to the royal family line of Israel.
He refurbished the Temple that would become the Temple Jesus knew and provided much to benefit the people through building and implementing elements of Greek and Roman culture. But he ruled within Israel with a great deal of harshness and free reign, having the full support of the Roman government. His decadent lifestyle proved he had no conscious devotion toward God and all he did for the nation was political.
Now about that triumvirate, few ambitious men want to work through a committee. These three men: Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius, struggled with each other to eliminate the competition. This forced Herod to choose sides for the one man he would support. Because he already had an established relationship with Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he chose Mark Antony. He chose wrong.
Lepidus died in battle. With one man down and one to go, Octavius pursued Mark Antony to Egypt. And like a chapter out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, instead of facing Octavius’ sword and thinking Cleopatra had killed herself, Mark Antony stabbed himself with his own sword. When he found out that Cleopatra was still alive, his friends took him to Cleopatra's monument in which she was hiding. He died in her arms. She then allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake and died as well. Octavius was the last man standing.
Then Herod, to make up for his mistake, changed the name of a great city he had built on the Mediterranean coast of Israel to Caesarea, in honor of Octavius who now became Caesar Augustus, or the Great Caesar.
It is Caesar Augustus we meet in Luke 2:1-3 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. – The city where the man was born. This would corroborate with records there to confirm he did indeed make the census.
Why did Augustus want a census of the whole inhabited earth or more specifically the whole Roman Empire? Generally, for tax purposes. Each person was required to pay a tax to exist within the empire. But this census, though only, perhaps, to calculate people and increase revenue, was being directed by the finger of God.
What was God doing? Micah 5:2 But as for you, Bethlehem, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.
The specific prophecy about where the Messiah would be born was this statement in Micah. He would come from Bethlehem.
When the Magi showed up at Herod’s palace seeking the newborn King, Matt 2:4-5 Herod gathered together all the chief priests and scribes of the people and inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: they quote the same verse from Micah.
Here’s sovereignty: you have a promise and a forced action by the government that helps bring the promise to the right location. The finger of God directing the hearts of kings toward His purpose. Now all you need is to get the main characters there.
Luke 2:4-6 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was betrothed to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.
Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth, but the family lineage went back to Bethlehem. Other than the census, there would have been no reason for them to have been in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. But thanks to Caesar Augustus, they were forced to align with God’s prophecy.
So, the pieces of the statue Nebuchadnezzar saw were not just a preview of the next nations to rule the world, they were the specific nations God would use to orchestrate His plan to so love the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.
We saw why we needed the Babylonians and the Persians and even the Greeks. But why did we need the Romans? Here are some things God would use to fulfill His plan that were uniquely Roman:
- Census – a Roman organizational/taxation tool – Fulfilled prophecy of having Jesus born in Bethlehem.
- Roman Law removed from Jewish leaders the right to execute a person. – Kept them from killing Jesus prematurely.
- The use as the primary source of capital punishment – crucifixion – fulfilled prophecy in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 as to how the Messiah would die.
- Provided access to the rest of the world by Roman roads and commerce – to spread the Gospel.
The right people at the right place at the right time isn’t a coincidence. It’s providence. It is the hand of God working through people and events to orchestrate everything toward the fulfillment of His plan. How the events unfold can be as important as what they help accomplish, when what is accomplished is God’s perfect work.
- Everything God does is with purpose.
- Even things that appear to be happenstance or chance, God may very well be in the background working out His plan.
- When we fail to recognize the hand of God in the circumstances of our lives, we may misunderstand the faithfulness of God.
- When we misunderstand the faithfulness of God, we will often assume things about God that aren’t true.
- Only a God who loves us with an everlasting love would be willing to accomplish what is best for us.