Matthew 4:16 - " . . . across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
The birthplace of our Lord was a place of deep darkness, not only the darkness of a cave apart from the crowded wayfarer's inn, not only a humble spot far from the splendor of the royal palaces of temporal rulers, but he appeared set aside even from the central symbols of the Jewish religion, their great Temple at Jerusalem, and the priesthood.
This temple and its high priest as the man who stood closest to God, were the nucleus and the most important influences in both the Jewish religion and nation, which were essentially the same. But in these times, they had become shrouded in hypocrisy, with evil intrigue and spiritual darkness, and in addition to this they were suffering the tortured politics of a nation under foreign control.
The first temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon had been ransacked and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., and rebuilt by the Jews about seventy years later when they were released from Babylonian captivity and returned home. This building was then used until the reign of Herod the Great who was still in office at the time of Jesus' birth. He managed to keep the Temple in continual use, while demolishing and completely rebuilding one room at a time.
Herod began this building in the year 19 B.C. He had accumulated vast quantities of materials, hired 10,000 laborers to work on the outside, and trained 1,000 in the art of masonry to build the inner section, because lay people, according to the
Hebrew law, were not permitted to enter there. The construction of this inner temple, the true sanctuary, took one and one-half years, the outer part with courts and cloisters another eight years. It is little wonder that the people marveled when Jesus said that he would tear down and rebuild this temple in three days.
It had been newly-dedicated only about five years before his birth, though some of the actual work of construction went on for many years longer, being fully finished only about six years before its total and final destruction in 70 A.D. along with the city of Jerusalem, in a war with Rome. In 135 A.D. after continuing war, Rome barred the city of Jerusalem against the Jews, and they have been wanderers ever since, only now returning to Palestine, in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.
The scene in the manger lends itself to sentimentality and by its tenderness has brought much beauty to the Christmas celebration, but the obscurity of his birth was of practical value and probably well-planned to assure needed protection, in order that his very life might be saved from jealous rulers and that he might survive to grow "in wisdom and grace" and to perform his mission in the fullness of time.
For the governing powers of that day were vicious and merciless. Seldom could one find such a contrast between the semblance of riches and that which has true and lasting value. For the courts were magnificent in lush extravagance of monetary wealth, beauty and pleasures of the flesh, but in gross poverty of spirit or character.
While Jesus was not outwardly homeless and unrecognized, he carried with him the lasting gold of spiritual riches and the permanent throne they could never hope to approach in their clouded existence.
A Scythian monk in the sixth century, called Dionysius the Little, mistakenly set the date of Jesus' birth in the year of Rome 754, and from this year is calculated the beginning of the Christian era. But while no historical record can be found of the date or year of Jesus' birth, there is amply recorded documentation of the reign of Herod, and the fact that this death occurred in 4 B.C. as the calendar now stands. This would mean he died four years before Jesus was born, which is obviously untrue.
He was still alive and in Jerusalem when the Magi came through seeking the child. After this time it was known he moved to Jericho for his health. So Jesus could not have been born later than 5 "B.C.," and more probably about 6 B.C., or six years "before Christ" as our calendar is reckoned. It has also been established that Jesus' public ministry began somewhere between 27 and 29 A.D.
Palestine, his geographical birthplace, which was named for the Philistines, covers an area slightly larger than our state of Vermont. It is bounded by the Mediterranean on the west coast, the Syrian-Arabian desert on the east, the Lebanon mountains on the north, and in the south by Idumea, and desert regions near the Dead Sea. It is divided lengthwise by the two hundred mile long River Jordan which is singularly interesting, in that the riverbed where it enters the Dead Sea is at 2592 feet below the level of the Mediterranean Sea, the deepest "continental depression" known in the land area of the world. It has a sub-tropical climate with two seasons, rainy in winter and dry in summer.
Jesus was a GALILEAN (Mark 1: 9, 14; 6: 6). This fact was of far-reaching significance for his whole career. For Galilee was the "Circle of the Gentiles," galil hagoyim (Matthew 4:15; Isaiah 9: 1), either because it was surrounded by foreign nations or because (in later times) the Jews were surrounded by foreigners.
This region, lying between Samaria in central Palestine and the mountains of Lebanon on the north border, and between the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Jordan on the east, was fertile and populous in the first century. But it had not always been Jewish territory.
In the days of Jesus, there were many non-Jews, especially Syrians, Phoenicians, Arameans, Greeks and Romans living there.
Politically, his land of birth was seething with unrest. Herod the Great was a treacherous and ambitious king, not really a Jew, but part Arab and part Idumean, a nation formerly subjected by the Jews and forced to turn to Judaism. Herod was loyal to Rome because it was the strongest power of the day and his throne depended on the favor of the Roman Emperor. Though Rome had conquered Palestine, they allowed Herod to continue on his throne. Therefore, he carefully backed whichever faction could give him the most in return.
He was hated by the Jews even though he did certain public work which included the building of a needed seaport town called Caeserea, where he kept a palace as well as the one in Jerusalem. Not only did he rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, he was simultaneously erecting pagan temples in Samaria and elsewhere. Not only did he acknowledge the Jewish faith, he also offered up a sacrifice to Jupiter to please his Roman peers, upon being awarded the throne.
The magnificence and evil corruption of his court were supported by treasures from the tomb of David, which he entered secretly at night. The building programs were financed by very heavy tax burdens on the people, corruptly administered by "tax farmers" who took the job on contract. Josephus called him "a cruel man toward all . . . . dominated by his rage." He killed, or ordered killed, countless people including several members of his own immediate family, and is considered one of the bloodiest men in history.
We will spare further details on this, to mention something else which has no bearing on this account, but it is interesting to note that the reign of Herod overlapped that of Cleopatra in Egypt. Her last seven years and his first seven on the throne coincided in time. She died in 30 B.C.
Such were the times in Jesus' day, with harsh Rome as the ruling power over-running the European and Mediterranean world. Rome started out a program quite lenient on the Jews, awarding them with concessions not granted to other provinces due to their reputation of being difficult to rule.
Their religious customs received tactful respect, and they were allowed the traditional exemption from the draft. King Herod had his own band of mercenary soldiers, while the Roman procurator, a military governor sent out from Rome to oversee the provinces and to keep military order, had under separate command cohorts of non-Jewish soldiers loyal to Rome. (Not until 26 A.D. would Pontius Pilate take this office in Jerusalem.)
The procurator was in turn under the supervision of a superior officer stationed in Syria, which was the headquarters for Rome and the legions in that area of the world, for Syria was a rich and more productive area than Palestine and always a coveted prize.
It was later in the century that increasingly brutal governors were sent out, as the Jews became more rebellious, until war was finally precipitated which wiped out the Jewish nation in 70 A.D. With what poignancy must Jesus have spoken the words, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not . . .Behold your house is desolate . . . and I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.' "