By Donald Whitchard
Luke 1:5-25; Isaiah 40:23; Proverbs 16:9; Isaiah 44:25; Proverbs 21:1; Jeremiah 18:7
Summary: The world of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus was characterized by political and religious strife, each group desperate to hold on to power, while the rest of society felt helpless. This is when God intervened and put His plans into action.
For four hundred years after the declarations made by the prophet Malachi concerning the future of Israel, the LORD remained silent, not giving any new word to His people the Jews. From 430 BC until the events described in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke took place, the “chosen people of God” had been exiled into Babylon, then came under the rule of the Persians, the Greeks, and now were subjects of the Roman Caesars who ruled with an iron fist over the vast expanse of their empire. Over the centuries, many devout Jews longed for the day when they would be rid of their oppressors, living instead under the protection of God’s Promised “Messiah,” or “deliverer,” whom they believed would be a son of the beloved King David who would overthrow the Romans and re-establish the kingdom of Israel forever on earth. As mentioned in the previous message, not everyone in the province of Judea shared that same longing. This conclusion to our look at Luke 1:5-25 will deal with those who thought otherwise and were determined to hold on to their share of power and influence no matter the cost. Even though the LORD had stayed “silent” in the period of history, He also worked quietly behind the scenes to put all the people and events into place that would usher in the arrival of the Promised Messiah. God always keeps His promises, but we might not be aware of those promises being put into action.
The Romans considered any threat of a new king or ruler coming into power as a challenge to the autocracy of the Caesars, who ruled their empire withe a ruthlessness that tended to thwart any thought or presumed act of rebellion by any individual or group. Rebels of any kind were hunted down and put to death for insurrection and treason. The slave revolt that had been led by the former gladiator Spartacus around 70 BC was still fresh in the minds of the Caesars. Scripture describes attempted yet unsuccessful rebellions that ended in bloodshed, for the Jews who saw Rome as a pagan force that needed to be ousted from the land (Acts 5:35-37). The presence of Roman soldiers in the region of Judea was a constant reminder to the Jews of their oppression and their desire for freedom. However, the leadership within Jewish society was just as much of a problem to the people as were Caesar and his representatives. Religious life was governed by two predominant groups who saw the Scriptures as mandates for adherence to tradition and conformity to expectations of how to live and behave as citizens bound to the Mosaic Law. These two groups were the Pharisees and Sadducees, with each having a take on what they believed God required of them and society in general. Along with these ideas on God and the interpretation of His Word and will, these two groups were also cozy with Rome and in turn were given leeway by the government to maintain control in return for keeping their respective positions.
The Pharisees believed that the entirety of Scripture was the Word of God. They also believed in life after death, the reality of angels and demons, the resurrection of the just and unjust at the end of the age, and the promise of a coming Messiah. They also taught about the accuracy of prophecy, and the strict adherence to the Sabbath Day, along with other laws and traditions. Their original objective was to maintain a personal sense of holiness to the LORD, but over the years had come down to nothing more than adherents to the laws, teachings, and customs of those teachers who had come before them in place of the pure Words of God. Instead they were “going through the motions” with little thought or concern for genuine worship and communion with God. The other group, the Sadducees, believed that the first five books of the Scriptures (the Torah), were the only authentic words of God. They denied the existence of an afterlife, resurrection, the existence of angels and demons, or anything that could be described as supernatural. They also had the closest relations with the Roman officials and often had one of their own members serving in the office of High Priest, a clear violation of the Aaronic line of priestly succession.
There was also the issue of the Roman-appointed “royal dynasty” that ruled the region for and at the pleasure of the Empire, namely the person and descendants of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea as “king” from 37 BC- 4 BC. Herod was not Jewish, but instead was from the ungodly line of Esau (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:36), the rejected brother of the patriarch Jacob. The people viewed Herod as nothing more than a usurper to the rightful Davidic line and never came to have anything but contempt for him. Herod was also seen by the Jews as nothing more than a “lackey” of the Romans, having been originally appointed to the position by the nobleman and friend of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony. When Antony and his paramour, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra were defeated by the forces of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Herod switched his allegiance to Octavian, who would go on to become Augustus Caesar, first emperor of Rome (27 BC -14 AD). Augustus then allowed Herod to remain in power and during his time as “king” of Judea, he undertook lavish building projects and began construction on a new temple in Jerusalem as a way of currying favor with his Jewish subjects to no avail.
Herod was married ten times during his lengthy reign and had many sons, including Antipas, Archelaus, Phillip, and Alexander, whom he had murdered for alleged insubordination. He had his favorite wife, Mariamne, put to death, which he later regretted bitterly. As a means of restitution, he had her body preserved and would often talk to it as he grew less connected with the world around him, growing more paranoid as the years passed. He was always terrified that the Romans would remove him from power and be exiled or worse. His cruelty was widely noted, and the fact that he had children murdered to retain his throne (Matthew 2:16) was typical of his nature. He was the first known official in the New Testament to try and kill the Lord Jesus, and there would be others who would possess the same demonic mindset during the years of Jesus’ ministry. Herod died in 4 BC of intestinal infections that were clearly visible to those around him. His genitals and other areas of his body were infected with intestinal worms and gangrene, among other maladies that plagued his body. The historian Jospehus in his book “Antiquities of the Jews,” Book 17, Chapter 5, described his agonizing death which will not be presented here. His son Antipas became the “tetrarch” (ruler) of Galilee and was noted for his own perversions, including his incestuous marriage to his niece Herodias, who had been the wife of his brother Phillip. He approved of the death of John the Baptist and mocked the Lord Jesus on the day of His illegal trial and crucifixion. None of the Herodian rulers had any redeeming virtue or character, and they were hostile to the early church as well (Acts 12). Their line came to an end with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Roman general and emperor Titus in AD 70.
The constantly charged political and religious climate of Judea reinforced the desires and hopes of devout Jews for their promised Messiah as the years came and went. The faithful remnant who kept their trust in the promises of God had their prayers answered, but in a manner that brought no fanfare or dynamic change in the overall life of the nation until His set time. That time came when the aged priest Zacharias entered the temple to burn incense before God. The four hundred “silent years” came to an end that day with the proclamation by the angel Gabriel that Zacharias and Elizabeth would be the elect forerunner of the coming Messiah. Their mutual lifetime devotion to the LORD would be rewarded and remembered in Luke’s Gospel, being read about for generations to come to show that God is still in charge, that He has not forgotten His promises, and will reward those who remain faithful and obedient to Him. Those of us who are His own will have our names written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life for eternity, and we will dwell with Him as He has promised in His Word because of His grace and mercy. The Lord Jesus Christ will never be hindered nor prevented from fulfilling His sovereign mission of redemption. Amen.
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Donald was born and reared in southern Louisiana in the heart of what is known as “Cajun country.” He is a graduate of Louisiana College, Pineville, LA (B.A. in History and Biblical Studies, 1984), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div. In Christian Education, 1994), and Andersonville Theological Seminary, Camilla, GA (Doctorate in Biblical Exposition, 2000). He has served in the Gospel ministry since 1986 as an evangelist, pastor, teacher, and healthcare chaplain. In 2018, he began devoting his time to Internet and social media evangelism as a writer for online ministries such as Rapture Ready, Sermon Central, Inspirational Christian Blogs, and other venues. He is the author of the book, “The Scope of Biblical Prophecy: A General Introduction,” available at Parsons Porch Publishers (www.parsonsporch.com). He is the host of the YouTube broadcast, The Reality City Review (https://www.youtube.com/@realitycityreview), a program dedicated to teaching books of the Bible, Bible prophecy, and related issues. It can be seen on his website (https://www.realitycityreverend.com/) and on Facebook, GETTR, Truth Social, and Savior Connect. He can be contacted at: email@example.com for speaking/preaching engagements or other inquiries.