Day 4 Prayer
Father, open my heart and mind to receiving your Word and your will. Help me to understand the times in which your Son entered the World and how that relates to the World as it is now. Show me how to apply the lessons he taught to this present time, and give me the strength to follow your Call.
In Jesus’ name, amen.
Setting the Stage
We’ve established that the texts of the scriptures were actual interviews and recollections of people who lived during Christ’s lifetime that were validated through hundreds of years of research, and that the research has stood up to another 1,700 years of reevaluation and even scientific (carbon dating).
Now, let’s look at historical backup (discussed in other historical writings of the time) and some of the characters involved early on.
Location, Location, Location
The beginning of Christ’s life on earth takes place in what we now call the Middle East, what the Church Universal refers to as “the Holy Lands”, and what Israel, Palestine, and several other nations/factions all individually claim as solely theirs. The larger map is modern, the inset is those portions of the larger map that were within Herod’s kingdom, the arrows point to Damascus (top) and Jerusalem (bottom) for reference points.
To give you some perspective, it would take a healthy person walking at a “quick pace” approximately one week to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus, so traveling the length of Herod’s kingdom is probably 1.5 weeks’ time, and the width is probably at least 1/2 a week’s time. Also important is the terrain:
Judea is a mountainous region, part of which is considered a desert. It varies greatly in height, rising to an altitude of 1,020 m (3,346 ft) in the south at Mount Hebron, 30 km (19 mi) southwest of Jerusalem, and descending to as much as 400 m (1,312 ft) below sea level in the east of the region. It also varies in rainfall, starting with about 400–500 millimetres (16–20 in) in the western hills, rising to 600 millimetres (24 in) around western Jerusalem (in central Judea), falling back to 400 millimetres (16 in) in eastern Jerusalem and dropping to around 100 mm in the eastern parts, due to a rainshadow effect (this is the Judean desert). The climate, accordingly, moves between Mediterranean in the west and desert climate in the east, with a strip of steppe climate in the middle. Major urban areas in the region include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gush Etzion, Jericho and Hebron.
Geographers divide Judea into several regions: the Hebron hills, the Jerusalem saddle, the Bethel hills and the Judean desert east of Jerusalem, which descends in a series of steps to the Dead Sea. The hills are distinct for their anticline structure. In ancient times the hills were forested, and the Bible records agriculture and sheep farming being practiced in the area. Animals are still grazed today, with shepherds moving them between the low ground to the hilltops as summer approaches, while the slopes are still layered with centuries-old stone terracing. The Jewish Revolt against the Romans ended in the devastation of vast areas of the Judaean countryside.~From Judea on Wikipedia
As we move through the story, distance and travel times will help you understand the circumstances and environment that affect the story.
Herod: Making Judea Great Again Or … ?
Herodes Magnus (Herod the Great) was born in 73 BC in Palestine (he was of Arab origin), and was a practicing Jew. His father was wealthy and well connected, including with Rome where he was favored by Julius Caesar. Herod personally became good and lifelong friends with Mark Antony. These connections proved to be very beneficial.
His political career started at age 26 (47 BC) when his father, named Procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar, named Herod governor of Galilee. Six years later, Mark Antony would name Herod Tetrarch (Roman governor) of Galilee. In 40 BC, after fleeing to Rome when the Parthians (ancient Iranians) invaded Palestine, the Roman Senate nominated Herod as king of Judea, gave him an army, and sent him back. Three years later in 37 BC, Herod had unchallenged rule over Judea, and would retain that position for 32 years.
Herod was good for Judea. He built many fortresses, aqueducts, theaters, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land. Among the more notable of Herod’s works were the “Antonia Fortress” and completion of the “Second Temple”, both in Jerusalem.
In his later years, unfortunately, he became the center of political and family intrigues, eventually earning him the title of “tyrant”. He was prone to fits of jealousy and, due to arteriosclerosis, became physically and mentally unstable.
Zechariah and Elizabeth
To understand the life of Jesus, I must first give you some background history, events that occurred when Herod ruled Judea for the Roman Empire. Zachariah was serving as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem those days as his fathers had before him. He was a member of the priestly division of Abijah (a grandson of Aaron who innovated temple practices), and his wife, Elizabeth, was of the priestly lineage of Aaron, Moses’ brother. They were good and just people in God’s sight, walking with integrity in the Lord’s ways and laws. Yet they had this sadness. Due to Elizabeth’s infertility, they were childless, and at this time, they were both quite old—well past normal childbearing years. ~Luke 1:5-7 (The Voice)
Luke’s introduction to the events leading up to the birth of Christ include Zechariah and Elizabeth, establishing both their roles in their communities and their moral character.
One day Zachariah was chosen to perform his priestly duties in God’s presence, according to the temple’s normal schedule and routine. He had been selected from all the priests by the customary procedure of casting lots for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the sacred precincts of the temple. There he burned sweet incense, while outside a large crowd of people prayed. Suddenly Zachariah realized he was not alone: a messenger of the Lord was there with him. The messenger stood just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was shocked and afraid, but the messenger reassured him. ~Luke 1:8-13a (The Voice)
During this time, “divisions” of priests were scheduled to serve at the Second Temple in Jerusalem on week-long rotations. Zachariah’s division, Abijah, was on duty and Zechariah had been selected to go inside the Temple to burn incense (only priests could go inside) while the other priests and the people waited and prayed outside.
There are two clues to why the appearance of someone else in the temple with him would shock Zechariah: 1) He would have been the only priest or person allowed in there for the burning of the incense and, 2) angels (messengers) only appeared to prophets – not priests.
Zachariah is a priest working in the temple, but priests don’t normally hear from God. Those who hear from God are called prophets, not priests. One becomes a priest by being born in a priestly family line. Prophets, on the other hand, arise unpredictably and have no special credentials except the message they carry. So Zachariah has no reason to believe his duties will be interrupted in this way. Often in the biblical story, when people receive a message from God—after getting over the initial shock—they start asking questions. They push back; they doubt. ~ Commentary on Luke 1 (The Voice)
The angel goes on to say, though:
Zachariah, calm down! Don’t be afraid!
Zachariah, your prayers have been heard. Your wife is going to have a son, and you will name him John. He will bring you great joy and happiness—and many will share your joy at John’s birth.
This son of yours will be a great man in God’s sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form; instead of alcoholic spirits, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s womb. Here is his mission: he will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. Do you remember the prophecy about someone to come in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents back to their children; someone who will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God. How can I be sure of what you’re telling me? I am an old man, and my wife is far past the normal age for women to bear children. This is hard to believe! ~Luke 1:13b-18
The angel tells Zechariah to calm down and not be afraid, and all about this really wonderful and exciting blessing that’s coming to him and Elizabeth, but I’m kind of with Zechariah. I’d be freaked out, too. After all, Zechariah knows he’s not a prophet, knows he’s supposed to be alone in the temple, knows he and Elizabeth are too old to have a child, and this is pretty unbelievable information. However, it’s not a good idea to question the messenger when the messenger is there on behalf of God:
I am Gabriel, the messenger who inhabits God’s presence. I was sent here to talk with you and bring you this good news. Because you didn’t believe my message, you will not be able to talk—not another word—until you experience the fulfillment of my words. ~Luke 1:19-20
Poor blessed Zechariah! He’s just been given wonderful news, but because he doubted, he’s been silenced for an unknown amount of time. The people outside are worried because he’s been inside longer than normal, and when he finally gets out there to give the blessing, all he can do is make signs.
The scripture goes on to tell us that Zechariah went home to Elizabeth after he had completed his time on duty at the temple, that she became pregnant shortly after he returned home, and that she didn’t boast or brag about becoming pregnant at her age, but stayed out of public sight for five months.
I have lived with the disgrace of being barren for all these years. Now God has looked on me with favor. When I go out in public with my baby, I will not be disgraced any longer. ~Luke 1:25
Luke’s Lessons in 1:5-25
Luke takes time in beginning his gospel to set the stage for all that’s coming. As he says, “To understand the life of Jesus, I must first give you some background history, events that occurred when Herod ruled Judea for the Roman Empire.” It’s important to him that we understand these initial characters and events in the Life of Christ for a couple reasons:
- Luke teaches us the value of waiting on God when he tells us about Zechariah, Elizabeth, and how long they’d gone without being able to have children.
- Through the characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke teaches us what we’re supposed to do while we’re waiting on God:
- Be blameless. Even though both Zechariah and Elizabeth were both born into a priestly bloodline (Aaron’s), the priesthood had long been tainted with corruption, politics, and power-mongering. Yet Zechariah and Elizabeth managed to live their lives rising above all that – to remain blameless in their faith walk.
- Be faithful. Zechariah, along with his priestly division, was expected to work at the Temple two weeks each year plus special feast weeks. They had regular jobs in their home communities. He could have begged off his duties as a priest with excuses like illness, can’t miss work, and so on, but he stayed faithful to God and kept his commitment as a priest.
- Be faith-filled. No matter what, trust God. The angel came and told Zechariah about the wonderful blessing he and his wife were about to receive and what did Zechariah do? What we’d all be prone to do – doubt. No matter what, we have to trust God.
- Be humble. Whatever God asks you to do, you have to trust Him and you have to do what is needed. Pastor Abidan Paul Shah writes:
Imagine what happened when he got home. Elizabeth sees him walking towards the house and she walks out and greets him – “So honey how was Jerusalem? Lot of people at the Temple? How was your journey?” I can visualize Zachariah – “Elizabeth – pull up a chair. You won’t believe this.” Then he goes on to tell her everything. If I could I would love to get a picture of her face at that point. “Does that mean we have to…?” “I think so…the Angel didn’t say anything about a virgin birth.” Pastor Abidan Paul Shah on Luke 1:5-23
So, be blameless, faithful, faith-filled and humble while you wait on God!