The Interbiblical Period (11 of 15)
Series: Scarlet Thread
We are following a theme through the whole Bible, “The Scarlet Thread,” the story of redemption. And in a little review, last Wednesday night we were speaking of the exile. After 587 BC, the people were carried away into captivity by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar [Jeremiah 39:1-10,52:4-30; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21]. And in their prostration and unbelievable sadness [Psalm 126:1-6], the prophet Jeremiah made an encouraging prediction concerning the will of God for them, that after seventy years they would be allowed to return home [Jeremiah 29:10-14].
Now the deportation to Babylon was in three parts. In 605, Daniel and his friends [Daniel 1:1-7]; in 598, Ezekiel and many of the flower of the priesthood [2 Kings 24:11-14], and then in 587, the full captivity when the city was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, the walls were torn down, and the people carried away [Jeremiah 39:1-10, 52:4-30; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21]. Now in keeping with the prophecy of Jeremiah, after seventy years God visited the people, and they were privileged to return, and as they had been carried away in three deportations, so they returned in three caravans.
In 536 BC, after Cyrus came and established Babylonia as just a province of the Medo-Persian Empire, in 536 when Cyrus came, Zerubbabel was given opportunity with Joshua the high priest to take all the captives back who would thus return. But only 42,360 of them chose to return [Ezra 2:64]. The rest of them had built their homes in Babylon and wished to remain. Then in 458, there was a second returning under Ezra [Ezra 1:5-6], and in 445, under Nehemiah [Nehemiah 7:5-66].
Now the returning captives first built the altar, the scarlet thread through the Bible. The first thing they did was to build the altar and to start the sacrifices before God [Ezra 7:6, 8:30-32]. Then they laid the foundation for the new temple [Ezra 3:8-13]. And finally, twenty years after the return, the temple was dedicated. It was complete [Ezra 5:1-2; 6:13-15].
Then we spoke of the fact that the Scriptures are stories and outlines and revelations of God’s redemptive purpose, and by no means is it a history, a story of the human family. And we gave an illustration of that last Wednesday night, that, between chapters 6 and 7 in Ezra [Ezra 6:22-7:1], are fifty-eight years, from 516 BC to 458 BC, and that in those fifty-eight years, some of the most startling of all of the events in the history of mankind took place, but there is absolute silence in the Bible. They are never mentioned or referred to.
In that fifty-eight years of silence between Ezra 6 and Ezra 7 [Ezra 6:22-7:1], in China, Confucius lived and died. In India, Buddha, Gautama Buddha, lived and died. In that period of time, Greece reached her golden age. Herodotus, the father of history, wrote. Thucydides, the first philosophical historian wrote. Socrates and Anaxagoras were the great philosophers teaching Plato and Aristotle. Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles wrote their tragedies. Pindar penned his lyrics. Aristophanes wrote his comedies, Pericles, Themistocles and Aristides swayed the political judgment of their country in Athens. And Marathon and Thermopylae and Salamis were fought on land and sea. Yet there is no mention of any part of that or any reference to any of that in the Holy Scriptures, for in the Bible there is a purpose, and always that purpose is our redemption [Ephesians 1:7-9].
Then we came to the story of the revival under Ezra [Ezra 9:1-10:19]. Then under Nehemiah and Ezra [Nehemiah 8:1-18], and Nehemiah with Malachi the prophet brought to the people encouragement and a prophetic announcement that that temple that they were reconstructing would be even greater than the temple in the days of the glory of Solomon [Haggai 2:7, 9]. And I mentioned the fact that to the people who heard that prophecy it must have been unthinkable and unimaginable! But to us there would be no comparison with the temple in Solomon’s day with all the grandeur and glory of Solomon [1 Kings 5:1-8:66], and the temple as it was reconstructed under Zerubbabel [Ezra 6:13-16] and Jesus, the Messiah Himself, entering in [Mark 13:1-2].
Now we come to that period at the end of Malachi and before the beginning of Matthew called the interbiblical period, the time between the Testaments, four hundred years from Malachi to Matthew. In that period of time, there is no prophetic voice. There is no added revelation. And we look upon it sometimes as being a period of silence and insignificance, but that is not true. There could hardly be a more decisively significant period in the story of God’s redemptive purpose than to be found in the four hundred years of that interbiblical period.
In the great prophecy of Daniel in the ninth chapter of Daniel, there are seventy sevens [Daniel 9:24]. The number of sevens is divided into three groups [Daniel 9:25-27]. The great prophecy in the ninth chapter of Daniel is this, that God hath ordained seventy sevens for His people until the consummation of the age, until the Lord Christ Messiah establishes His eternal kingdom in the earth [Daniel 2:44-45].
There are seventy sevens of time between that day when the Lord began it in this prophecy and to the consummation of the age [Daniel 9:24]. And in that great prophecy, which is doubtless the most significant prophecy in the Bible, in that ninth chapter of the Book of Daniel, the seventy sevens are divided into three parts [Daniel 9:25].
There are seven sevens, that is, 49 years, the time of Nehemiah and Malachi and the rebuilding of the temple [Daniel 9:25]. Then there are 62 sevens, 434 years, from the cessation of prophecy with Malachi to the death of Christ [Daniel 9:25]. It is this interlude between the Old and the New Testament.
Then there is one seven [Daniel 9:27]. There is seven years that is set aside by itself, and this is divided into two parts, three and a half years, three and a half years, 1,250 days, 1,250 days, 42 months; 42 months [Daniel 9:27]. It’s a time period in which the last seven is divided right in half, three and half years on one side, three and a half years on the other side [Daniel 9:27].
That is the time of the end, as we read in Daniel 11:40, Daniel 12:9, Revelation 12:6, 14 and Revelation 13:5. So this last seven is at the end time [Daniel 12:8-13]. We call that the time of the apocalyptic revelation that you read in the Book of the Revelation [Revelation 4:1]. It is the time of the tribulation [Daniel 12:1].
And at the end of that time, the thing is done. History is over. The consummation is come [Daniel 9:27]. Human history has reached its climax, and between the 62 years and the seven years [Daniel 9:25]—that’s 69 years—and this last seven, this last seven years, this third group between the seven-sevens, the 62 sevens and this last seven, there is this great period that the prophets never saw [Ephesians 3:2-12].
Paul expressly tells us in the third chapter of Ephesians and mentions it in otherwise that the church was never seen by the prophets. It was a mustērion—Greek—a secret that God kept in His own heart. So you never find the church in the Old Testament. It’s not in the prophecies. It’s not revealed. It was a secret that God kept to Himself [Ephesians 3:2-12].
And between the 69 weeks and the seventieth week [Daniel 9:25-27], there is this great hiatus, this period of grace, this age of the church in which you and I live, a thing that the Old Testament prophet never saw. So this interbiblical period is in that time period of the 62 sevens, the 434 years between the cessation of prophecy in Malachi [Malachi 4:1-6], and the death of our Lord, the crucifixion of Christ [Matthew 27:32-50]. Now in that period of time, there have been vast changes brought to pass in the people of the Lord. From the Old Testament period to the New Testament period is a vast change.
Look at it for just a minute. At the close of the Old Testament, the seat of world empire is in the East. It is in Asia. At the opening of the New Testament, the seat of world empire is in the West. It is in Rome, and it has stayed in the West ever since. It has never returned to the East.
At the close of the Old Testament, Persia was the great world power. At the opening of the New Testament, Rome is the great world power. At the close of the Old Testament, Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, is the lord over Palestine. At the opening of the New Testament, Caesar is the lord over the Holy Land. At the close of the Old Testament, Judea is under a Jewish governor. At the opening of the New Testament, Judea is under a Roman deputy. At the close of the Old Testament, there are no Greek cities in Palestine. At the opening of the New Testament, there are Greek cities everywhere. For example, the Decapolis, the Decapolis is just a name for ten Greek cities. Greek cities are everywhere in Palestine. There was not a one of them at the close of the Old Testament. At the close of the Old Testament, the temple is the one built by Zerubbabel [Ezra 5:1-2]. At the opening of the New Testament, the temple is rebuilt by Herod the Great [John 2:20]. At the close of the Old Testament, there is no mention, either in the Old Testament or in the Apocrypha, of the synagogue. At the opening of the New Testament, there are synagogues everywhere, from Jerusalem to Rome and throughout the whole civilized world.
At the close of the Old Testament, the Scriptures of the Old Testament were in Hebrew and in Hebrew alone. At the opening of the New Testament, the Scriptures of the Old Testament are in Greek, called the Septuagint. The Bible of the first Christian evangelist and apostles and missionaries was the Greek Septuagint.
At the close of the Old Testament, there are no writings of Jews other than the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, but at the opening of the New Testament, there are fifteen apocryphal writings and many called pseudepigrapha, writings of supposedly great saints back there, the patriarchs, but absolutely spurious. At the close of the Old Testament, there are no Pharisees or Sadducees. At the opening of the New Testament, they are everywhere, and they arose in that interbiblical period.
Now we’re going to look at the people of God as they lived in that 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. First of all, are the priests. In the long period of the interlude between the Old and the New Testament, the Jewish rulers were priests, not kings. The priests combined religious and civil functions in the same office. And there was an unbroken succession of high priests from the time of Joshua, the high priest who returned with Zerubbabel from Babylon [Ezra 3:2; Haggai 1:1], until the birth of Christ, a period of over 530 years [Matthew 1:18-25].
There were about, in that period of time, there were about thirty-two high priests from Joshua in BC 536 to Joazar in BC 4, when Christ was born. And under those high priests, the people lived and were governed in Judea.
Now the religious parties were these: first, the Pharisees. They were not a political but a religious party. Their name “Pharisee” means separatist. They came to prominence and power in the period of the Maccabees. The Maccabaean prince and high priest, John Hyrcanus, from 135 to 106 BC, was at first a Pharisee. Then he later became a Sadducee. And the son of John Hyrcanus, Alexander Jannaeus, who was high priest from 105 to 78 BC, the priest king, John Hyrcanus, as he led a feast among his concubines, had eight hundred Pharisees crucified in his presence.
When you think of the cruelty of the world on the outside, it is hardly comparable to the cruelty of the Jewish nation on the inside. Can you imagine John Hyrcanus, the high priest, crucifying eight hundred of the Pharisees while he enjoyed a feast with his innumerable concubines?
The Pharisees devoted their lives to upholding the law. They refined it by their oral tradition to ridiculous extremes. Their zeal hardened into hard, dogmatic formalism, and their fidelity was corrupted into fanaticism. The Pharisees so refined the law and so refined the law, applying it to all of the things of daily life, until it is almost unbelievable what you can read. For example, in a tractate in the Mishna, in the Talmud on the Sabbath—how to keep the Sabbath—you could not dare pull out a hair, a gray hair on the Sabbath day. That would be working. And you could not dare seek out a flea, or a louse, and crush it because that would be hunting. And you could only go so far on a Sabbath day. And you could not eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath day. Oh, there were so many, many things that we don’t have time even to refer to them!
But that happened, all of that refinement happened in the interbiblical period. It was referred to as the tradition of the elders. And as between the word of the law in the Bible and the tradition of the elders, the tradition of the elders with the Pharisees was first and primary. And it was that against which our Lord inveighs.
All right; the other party was the Sadducees. They were never a large party numerically. There were though, nonetheless, powerful, wealthy, and influential. They were the materialists. They were the secularists, they were the skeptics. They were the rationalists of their time.
Don’t ever be surprised at what you find in the Christian church today. It’s no different today than it has always been. You have always had the people who went to extremes in their religious piousity, and you have always had those people who were secular and material in their attitude toward the worship of the Lord.
The Sadducees were the worldly secularists of their time, and their outlook was limited to this life and to this world. They opposed the Pharisees and their traditions and their oral law. And the party perished under the rubble of the temple in 70 AD when the city and the temple was destroyed by the Roman legions of Titus. And the Judaism that you know today and that we see today is nothing Sadducean at all, but it is Pharisee. The Judaism that we know, the Jewish worship and life that we know today is that of the Pharisees.
There was another party, among others. There was another one that is not mentioned in the New Testament but that is very definitely there. They’re called the Essenes. They were the mystics, a strange people who lived in kind of monastic orders, though they married—though they were privileged to marry, most of them did not. But they lived in monastic-like orders in little exclusive communities and villages of their own. An outstanding feature of these Essenes was their washings, their ablutions, and that led them to dwell near water, and especially you see them by the Dead Sea.
The wilderness of Judea is where John the Baptist lived and preached, and he most certainly knew these Essenes. They wore a white dress, symbol of their purity. They wore a leather apron in defense against impurity. They always carried a spade or a pick axe to dig holes to bury impurity. They did not eat meat. They strictly observed the Sabbath.
They venerated the Scriptures, and when you read of Qumran and all of those other Scriptures that you find in the caves near the Dead Sea, all of that is the work of these Essenic communities. They are not mentioned in the New Testament, as I said, but they are described by Josephus, by Philo, and by the Roman literary governor, Pliny.
Now in this period between the two Testaments came the canon of the Holy Scriptures, all of them written in Hebrew. They came into being in this interbiblical period. There was no Bible as such before the interbiblical period. There was no collection of the Holy Scriptures. There were writings, but they were separate.
Like the first Christian community, Antioch might have a Gospel, Matthew. Ephesus might have a Gospel, John. Philippi might have a Gospel, Luke. Rome might have a Gospel, Mark. Ephesus might have an epistle, Ephesians. Colosse might have an epistle, Colossians. Philemon might have an epistle personally. But at first it was all scattered around in these different communities.
And as time went on, they made copies. Ephesus would hear that there was a copy of the Gospel at Philippi, so they’d get one and exchange the Gospel of John that they had at Ephesus for the Gospel of, say, Luke at Philippi. So they began to exchange those Gospels and to exchange those letters.
And finally, under the leadership and direction of the Holy Spirit, the canon of the New Testament came into being. Now in the years of the Old Testament, there was no canon. There was no collection of the sacred writings. They were collected in the days of the interbiblical period. And almost certainly it was the work of Ezra, the great priest and scribe.
Now the Old Testament canon is divided into three groups very distinctly. If I had time, we would take the Old Testament and just open it and show it to you and look at it. It is divided into three groups. There is the Torah, the law, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Then there is the nevi’im, the Prophets. They are Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets. In the second division called the Prophets, the nevi’im, there are those. Then in the Kethuvim, in the Greek the hagiographa, in English the sacred writings, there were the Psalms, the Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
You can see from this that there was a great deal of difference between our Bible, our Old Testament, and the Hebrew Bible. There’s a great deal of difference in the collection, the arrangement of the books. But our Bible is that same canon. All of the books that I have just read to you divided into the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Kethuvim, all of them are in our Bible. The canon of our Bible is the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, and what is not in the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, what is not in that canon of Ezra is not in our Bible. Now in this interbiblical period, there were many, many noncanonical writings, and they, without exception, are written in Greek.
The big canon, the rule by which you can divide the Holy Scriptures back there in that interbiblical period, is a very simple one. Those that are in Hebrew are in the Bible. Those that are in Greek are not in the Old Testament. They are not in the Old Testament Bible.
Now we call those books written in Greek that are not in Hebrew and not in our Bible, we call them the Apocrypha. The word apocrypha means concealed, obscure, or hidden. And at first the word referred to truth that was known only to the initiated, such as for example the Masonic Lodge. The truth of the Masonic Lodge is given only to those who are initiated in it. If you have not been initiated into the Masonic Lodge, you do not know the truth that they teach you in the initiation. Now that’s the way the Apocrypha means. It means knowledge that was given to the initiated.
Well, finally, it came to mean what is hidden, what is concealed. Nobody knew it but the initiated, and now we use the Apocrypha to refer to those books, fifteen in number, that are written in Greek that you find in some of these big Bibles between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Now I’m going to tell you what the fifteen are and a little word about the kind of a book that it is. First Esdras, and that’s just a Greek word for Ezra. First Esdras, that is a book made up of material that you find in 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Second Esdras—now there are fifteen of these books, and I’m going to name them, one, two.
Number one was 1 Esdras, which is just a compilation of material you find in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Now 2 Esdras is an apocalyptic book of visions, and doubtless, the—maybe the first or the second most important book in the Apocrypha. It is partly written by a Christian Jew and partly written by another Jew of Alexandria. It is a very important book made up of apocalyptic visions.
The third book is Judith, Judith. That’s a religious, political fiction. It tells the story of how Judith, a very devout Jewish girl, slew Holofernes, who was the general of Nebuchadnezzar. And I don’t suppose there’s a more famous picture in the world than Judith carrying the head of Holofernes. Now the fourth is Esther, Additions to the Book of Esther, additions to Esther in about six places. The fifth is the Wisdom of Solomon written by an Alexandrian Jew, and it is a tremendously great book on Jewish philosophy. The sixth book is Ecclesiasticus. That’s a magnificent book of Jewish proverbs, kind of like Ecclesiastes.
The seventh book is supposed to be a letter by Baruch, who was the amanuensis of Jeremiah. The eighth one is the Song of the Three Hebrew Children. In Daniel 3:23, it is inserted when the Hebrew children, the three, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego were in the fiery furnace, why, this is the song that they’re supposed to have sung.
The ninth is the history of Susannah. It’s the story of a Jewish woman and the defense of her innocence. She was accused of adultery. The tenth is called Bel and the Dragon. It is two stories relating to Daniel. The eleventh book is the Prayer of Manasseh. When he was in Babylon, he prayed. He got right with God. He repented and God restored him to his throne. Well, there’s no prayer, so somebody felt there had to be a prayer there so they wrote out a prayer, and that’s the eleventh apocryphal book.
The twelfth is 1 Maccabees. It is written by a Sadducee, and it is—and the purpose of it is solely historical—one of the finest books in literature is 1 Maccabees. It is a magnificent book. Second Maccabees is written by a Pharisee, and its purpose is religious.
The fourteenth book is the Epistle of Jeremiah. He had written a letter to the Jews in Babylon, which is Jeremiah chapter 29. So why didn’t he write another letter? So somebody just wrote another letter, the Epistle of Jeremiah. And the fifteenth and the last book is Tobit, which is a book of religious fiction and a very interesting one.
Now those are the books of the Apocrypha. They are written in Greek, and when Jerome, who lived in the cave at Bethlehem where Jesus was born, when Jerome translated the Scriptures, he made the fatal and tragic mistake of in the Latin Vulgate, which became the authoritative Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, he translated the Hebrew Scriptures, he translated the Greek Apocrypha and then of course translated the Greek New Testament into the Latin.
And from that day until this, you have people looking at the Apocrypha. For the most part, the Apocrypha is idiocy. Some of the stories in there are just downright inane. They are beyond fairy tales. Some of it is very good. For example, 1 Maccabees is a magnificent book of history. And the wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, if you’d like to see Jewish philosophy in its finest presentation, you’ll find it there. But most of the Apocrypha is just inane. And it would be unthinkable to us to receive them as the inspired words of the Lord.
Now we’re going to come and last to the preparation of the world for the coming of Christ. In Galatians 4:4, the apostle says that in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law. Now, in the fullness of time when God made the world ready, when He prepared it for the coming of our Savior, now this part of the lecture will be very familiar to you.
There was a Jewish preparation for the coming of our Savior. One of the most impressive phenomena of history is the ubiquity of the Jew. For over three thousand years, he has been scattered abroad, and that scattering is called the Diaspora, the Jews living among Gentiles outside Palestine. That Diaspora had been predicted by Moses in Deuteronomy 28:25. “If you go away from the Lord, the Lord will cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies . . . and thou shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.” And that prophecy came to pass, made by Moses a thousand four hundred or more years before Christ [John 7:35; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1].
And they were scattered throughout the earth and are scattered today, the Diaspora. You have it mentioned in the New Testament when the Lord said to the Jews, “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto Him that sent Me. Ye shall seek Me, and shall not find Me; and where I am, thither you cannot come” [John 7:33-34]. Now, verse 35 in the seventh chapter of John: “Then said the Jews among themselves, ‘Whither will He go, that we could not find Him? Will He go to the Diaspora among the Gentiles and teach the Gentiles?’” [John 7:35]. The Diaspora.
Now I want you to notice, and if you’ve been ever hearing me preach, why, this will be very familiar to you. James, the pastor of the church at Jerusalem [Acts 15:13, 19], addressed his letter like this. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes of the Diaspora” [James 1:1], greeting and so on. Now Simon Peter did the same thing. Peter begins his epistle, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the Diaspora, of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” the Diaspora [1 Peter 1:1]. This is the scattering of the Jewish nation among all of the families of the world.
Now sometimes that Diaspora, that scattering, is spoken of as a punishment for their sins. It is so spoken in Jeremiah 8:3, in Jeremiah 16:15and in Ezekiel 4:13. But it is also spoken of as a blessing to the Gentiles as in Micah 5:7. So the Diaspora was both. It was a punishment upon the Jewish people for forsaking their Lord, but it was also used of God as a blessing to the nations of the world.
Now those Jewish people of the Diaspora scattered abroad came from all over the civilized world to Jerusalem for the three great feasts—the Feast of the Passover, the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. You see them there from all over the earth. For example, all of you are familiar with the second chapter of the Book of Acts, when, given the marvelous gift of languages, they spoke of great glorious news of the Son of God, and every man heard it in his own tongue. And there is listed there in the second chapter of Acts a long list of the nations from which the Jews had come [Acts 2:1-11].
The Diaspora cast up a great highway for the preaching of the gospel. Their synagogues were everywhere. If there were five Jewish families, it was compulsory, it was a mandate of the Talmud that a synagogue be organized. Wherever they went, they took the Scriptures with them and took them in Greek, and wherever they went, there were they monotheistic.
The Jews stood out like a thumb. He stood out like an angel. He stood out like a fire or a light from heaven. The whole world around him was in idolatry, sodden in idolatry, but the Jew was monotheistic. After the Babylonian captivity, the Jew has never, ever since gone back to idolatry. He is a monotheist of the first order, and he is today and will be forever. So wherever the Jew went, he carried with him those institutions of Judaism that were monotheistic, and he made proselytes everywhere.
For example, in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, you have the story of a Jewish proselyte. He was a eunuch, the eunuch under Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He was a proselyte of the temple, that is, he had become a full-fledged Jew. He was circumcised, and he had gone up to Jerusalem for to worship [Acts 8:26-27].
And while he was in Jerusalem, he came across, and evidently, being an affluent man, he bought a copy of the scroll of Isaiah, and returning to Ethiopia in his chariot, he was seated there reading Isaiah [Acts 8:28]. And at the time God had prepared, he was reading the fifty-third chapter, when Philip, who had been sent there, heard him read it, and the eunuch invited him to come up and asked him, “Of whom does the prophet speak when he writes here? “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” [Isaiah 53:6]. Who is that? Of whom is the prophet speaking?” [Acts 8:24- 35]. “In the same Scripture he preached unto him Jesus’ [Acts 8:35]. That man was a proselyte of the temple. He was a full-fledged Jew.
Now there was another kind of a proselyte. You would call him a proselyte of the gate, that is, he just came up to the gate of the temple, but he never entered in. Now a typical proselyte of the gate is Cornelius in the tenth and the eleventh chapters of the Book of Acts [Acts 10:1-11:18]. He was a man who was a Gentile and stayed a Gentile, but he was a man who was disgusted with the corruption and immorality of idolatry, and he had forsaken his idols and had embraced the purity of the moral law of Moses.
He was a proselyte of the gate, and over the empire wherever the apostles went, there did they find those proselytes of the gate, men who had forsaken their idolatry and had embraced the great, puerile, pure monotheism of the Jews. And they were the people who were the most open-hearted towards the reception of the gospel of Christ.
Now that was the Jewish preparation for the preaching of the message of Jesus. Now there was a heathen preparation. The tragic state of the world when Jesus was born into it is unthinkable by us. We have no conception of what it was. Society, the whole social order, government, trade, work, agriculture, manufacturing, shipping, no matter what, name it, the whole order of society was built upon the foundation of slavery. If you were in a ship, those men who were rowing that ship were slaves.
If you saw a building built, the men who were building that building were slaves. If you saw a road being laid, the men who were laying those stones were slaves. If you saw a child being taken to school, the man who took that child was a slave. The whole social order was built upon slavery. Out of a population out of one hundred million in the Roman Empire, over sixty million of them were slaves. They were chattel property and were looked upon as being property.
You did with your slave as you pleased. For example, Cleopatra, Cleopatra, Cleopatra took her slaves, and before her throne, she experimented with them to find out the easiest way to die. She’d experiment with this one, then with that one, then with that one, and all through the time she’d experiment how it was that people could be put to death, and finally found that the easiest and simplest way to die without pain or convulsion was through the bite of the venomous asp. And in the story, of course, when she took her life, she put an asp in her bosom.
Was that looked upon as something bad in the days of Cleopatra? Why, certainly not. What is a slave less than a cow or a dog? It was—the slave was nothing. He had no rights. He was not protected by any law. There was nothing about the slave except whatever you wanted to do with him.
Another characterization of the world into which Jesus was born—you know what? It just seems to me that an hour goes by up here just like that. It’s just about an hour now. I think about that when I think of this. You know, I think, well, I ought not to lecture more than thirty minutes. Well, I do believe in thirty minutes I would just get started. I’d just get kind of introducing the subject.
Another characterization of the world in which Jesus was born was typically illustrated by the gladiatorial displays. The nearest that we come to that is our football games. And, of course, we have judges there, you know, to keep them from killing each other. But the gladiatorial displays in the days of the first Christian century were bloody things to witness. The ground of the arenas was covered with sand so that after they were soaked in blood somebody could come out there and quickly turn the sand over and go on with the horrible displays.
Let me tell you something I read one time. In the Roman Coliseum there were two men who were watching the gladiatorial combats unto death down there on the sand. And as they saw those two men fight to the death in gladiatorial combat, one of the men turned to the other one and said, “What is needed is the creation of a heart that would make it impossible to look upon such suffering and such bloodshed, and the future will belong to that person or persons who could create such a heart.”
Guess who did that? Jesus and the Christian church; they destroyed that Coliseum. Go over there and look at it. It’s in ruins. They forever did away with crucifixion as an instrument of execution. They forever did away with exposing of children. If you didn’t want the child, just expose it, that is, put it out to die. And it was so many times picked up by unscrupulous people who broke all its bones and raised it in a misshapen thing to be placed on the side of a street or a road to beg. Oh, it’s unthinkable for us! And the degradation of woman in the days when Christ was born is unthinkable.
Seneca was the teacher and the Stoic philosopher, the teacher of Nero. Here is a copy of a sentence from Seneca, quote; “The world is full of crime and vices. More are committed than can be cured by force. Crimes are no longer hidden but open before our eyes. Innocence is not only rare but nowhere.” End quote. It sounds like what Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans. In the first chapter of Romans, you have a description of society and the moral life of the people in the days of the Roman Empire [Romans 1:17-32]. How urgent the need for redemption!
Now, the contribution of the Greeks was they unified the world in one language and one culture. It was the Hellenized world. It was the Greek world that received most eagerly the Christian message. And, of course, the Romans, they built the road that laced the entire civilized world together.
The whole world was under one government and under one law. There was universal government everywhere. There was military protection on land and on sea. And the whole human race was prepared for the great redemptive purpose of God.
As the Lord said in Genesis 12:3, “And in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” and as Revelation 22:2 says, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” In the fullness of the time, after God had through those centuries and millennia prepared the world, the Messiah came, our Savior [Galatians 4:4], to die for our sins according to the Scriptures [1 Corinthians 15:3].
And sweet people, the lecture is done, but I cannot but add this one little addendum: the same Lord God who, through these centuries and the centuries prepared the world for the coming of Christ the first time, is the same Lord God who is preparing this world for the coming of Christ the second time.
You know, when I go around, and I’ve been preaching in Orlando, Florida the first part of this week, wherever I go around, there is one question that will everlastingly be asked me. If they find out that I’m a minister, and the man sits by me on the plane, or after I speak there’ll be people to stand around to talk to me after it’s over, or if I go into a home and am being entertained at some kind of a refreshment in a home, you know the question that’s always asked, and it never fails, “So you are a minister. You’re a preacher of the gospel. You study the Bible, don’t you?” “Yes.” “Do you think we’re coming to the end of the age? Do you think the time of the coming of Christ is nigh? Do you think these things that are happening in the world, the fear and the apparent frustration that men in high office daily are confronted with, and do you think the things that are happening over there in the Holy Land, do you think all of these are signs that Jesus is at the door, that He is coming again?”
You know what I say? Always the same answer: He interdicted our seeking out the time and the season [Acts 1:7]. We’re not to do it, but always we are to live in the imminency, i-m-m, in the imminency of our Christ, that He is at the door. Any day, anytime, our Lord could come. And He is preparing the world for that great personal descent of our Savior from heaven” [Revelation 1:7].
And to live in that imminency, in that expectancy, in that immediacy is the sweetest way in the world for a child of God to live. There is death. No matter, He is coming soon [Revelation 22:20], and He can raise the dead [John 6:40].
There is AIDS and illness. No matter, the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the people [Revelation 22:2]. There are tears and troubles. No matter, there is no crying and sighing and sorrow [Revelation 21:4]. All of these things are soon to find they’re consummated in His gracious hands.
So we live with our faces uplifted. God says so. “Lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh” [Luke 21:28], never to be defeated, never to be downcast, never to be disheartened, never to lose faith or to lose hope. Behold, He stands at the door [Revelation 3:20], the same God who prepared the earth for the coming of our Savior the first time is doing the same thing for us today. He is preparing the earth for His coming the second time [Acts 1:11; Hebrews 9:28]. Blessedness, hallowedness, triumph and victory, glory and redemption are always promised.
Could we bow our heads just for the second? This Thanksgiving eve, is there someone here to give himself to Jesus? Is there someone here to put his life in the church? Would you hold up your hand? Is there somebody new anywhere? God love you, there’s one. Bless you. Is there another? Is there another? “I’d like to give my heart to the Lord, and I’d like to put my life in the fellowship of the church.”
Our Savior, for this one who raises her hand, we are so grateful. Maybe in her example somebody else would come to Thee and to us, in Thy precious name, amen.
For more sermons by W.A Criswell, please visit www.wacriswell.com