If you’re like me, Christmas Season is as enjoyable, if not more so, than Christmas itself. First we break out the decorations. We relish the memories from all the years for each item while listening to CDs of the Nutcracker and O Holy Night. We get to sing songs we’ve been waiting for all year. Then there are the parties with coworkers and friends. Don’t forget all the treats! (Whether picking out the gifts is enjoyable or not depends on what the selection’s like on Amazon.) Anyway, there’s too much delight there to pack into one day. I love our Christmas traditions and look forward to them for months before they actually get here.
Well, the first Christmas took a lot of planning itself. Centuries of it, in fact. Paul says in Romans 5:6 that Christ died “in due time” (KJV). The life of Christ was the most carefully planned event in history. If you look at the forces at play, you’ll find that they created an opportunity for the work of the Messiah and the creation of His Church at the most favorable time like never before or ever since. What’s astonishing is that the very things you think would hinder God’s plan of salvation actually paved the way for it.
Technically, God had been preparing for Christ’s coming since the beginning of history. In Genesis 3, a matter of hours after the first sin, God promises that He will send someone to crush the serpent’s head and vanquish sin forever. I’m just going to focus on the immediately preceding centuries, though.
I’ll start with the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BC. You wouldn’t think that a tragedy that could inspire the Book of Lamentations and that saw mothers eating their babies would have anything to do with mankind’s salvation, but it did. This campaign led to the Jewish Diaspora. Fleeing the Babylonians’ wrath, Jews settled throughout the known world. That way, when Christ came and commanded His people to spread the Gospel throughout the world, there were ready-made nuclei of churches in the Jewish synagogues all around the Mediterranean. Yes, most Jews were hostile to the early Church, but you see the pattern again and again of Paul preaching as a rabbi in a Jewish synagogue and starting his church-planting there. Rodney Stark, in Cities of God, demonstrated that a Greco-Roman city with a Jewish community was more likely to have a church earlier than one without one.
These Jews had been given a list of prophecies to verify who the Messiah would be and what His plan of salvation would be like when He did come. The Jews in Judea completely missed the point, but there were Jews in the Diaspora like the Bereans who confirmed what Paul taught them by searching the Old Testament. The canon of the Old Testament was not universally agreed upon yet, but all the books were in existence and well known. In fact, there hadn’t been a prophetic word in Israel for over 400 years by the time Christ was born around 6-4 BC. That way, when it did come, in the person of John the Baptist around 29 AD, people were thirsting for it.
Interestingly, during that time of silence, Judaism had actually deteriorated. Jesus found them “like sheep without a shepherd.” The two leading religious groups were the Pharisees, who believed they could earn their way into the New Jerusalem, and the Sadduccees, who denied there would even be a New Jerusalem. When Jesus told them both they were wrong, they killed Him. It’s kind of surprising that God would let His people fall into such unpreparedness before He visited them, but when you consider that their rejection of their visitation led to the extension of God’s offer of salvation to the whole world, it makes perfect sense.
Also, the ruler at Christ’s birth was a raging tyrant. Herod the Great would kill anyone he even remotely considered a threat, be they his family members or even little babies in Bethlehem. I’m sure God had a reason for putting Herod in power before the first Christmas, but I don’t know what it is. The only thing I can think of is that he built one of the most magnificent temples in the ancient world, which the early Church was wont to worship in until its destruction in AD 70. (As an aside, I once asked my pastor how Herod was able to build a more splendid temple than Solomon when he ruled a smaller kingdom. He replied that he was just that much better at fleecing his people. That’s saying something when you consider that Israel eventually broke off from Solomon’s kingdom because of his rigorous taxes.)
300 years before Christ came, Alexander the Great conquered the known world. The conquered peoples actually took up Greek culture enthusiastically. That way, when Paul set out to evangelize or write his epistles to churches he had planted, he could do so in one language. It is a very descriptive one at that. It has four words for our word love, for instance, not all of which the New Testament needed. Thanks to the Ptolemies in Egypt’s desire for an exhaustive library at Alexandria, the Gentiles could read the New Testament in that language as well instead of having to learn Hebrew. The New Testament uses the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament to cite prophecies. Even Rome went crazy for Greek. As one Roman put it, “Conquered Greece conquered Rome.” When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, he wrote it in Greek because the Romans had so thoroughly adopted the Hellenistic culture.
The Greek tongue was the major contribution of the Greeks to the preparations for Christmas, but their culture was part of it too. John 1 makes extensive use of the Greek concept of the overarching Logos (in English, the Word) overseeing the universe. Paul had a lot to criticize about the Greeks and their idolatry, but he didn’t hesitate to refer to Greek culture when reaching out to them. He quotes two Greek authors talking about Zeus in his speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus and maybe makes an allusion to Polyphemus’s blinding in the Odyssey when he talks about mankind groping for God. Even when writing to his friend Titus, he quotes a Greek poet about the Cretans. Years later, when the Church had to define its orthodox position, it relied heavily on Greek philosophy with all that talk about essences and substances.
By far the most conspicuous development in the years before Christ’s coming was the rise of the Roman Empire. By this time it encompassed virtually the whole Mediterranean. Now, you might think that an empire that fed Christians to lions and insisted that sacrifices be made to its emperors would be an obstacle for the Church to overcome rather than a factor in its success, but God didn’t ordain their authority over the known world for nothing.
First of all, there was the famous Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. On the frontiers, Roman emperors still sent out armies to conquer lands and glory, but all around the Mediterranean they had established an area of relative peace and stability. Thus when Paul sent his couriers with his epistles, they could travel with comparative security, and churches in, say, Ephesus were not wiped out in a sack of their city. The contrast between Julio-Claudian order and the preceding centuries of war between Alexander’s successors or feuding Roman generals couldn’t be starker.
Even though the Roman Empire turned on the Christians before a full generation had passed, for the Church’s most formative years, it largely protected it. Since it recognized Judaism as a legal religion, until it came to see Christianity as a separate religion, it had no real problem with it. You see Paul several times in Acts using his Roman citizenship to secure protection from hostile Jews. In all likelihood, Nero martyred Paul in 67 AD, but the mobs in Ephesus and Jerusalem would’ve been happy to do it for him many years before. If the Roman soldiers hadn’t carried Paul away from the frenzied Jews trying to pull him apart, we wouldn’t have the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) or the Pastorals (I and II Timothy and Titus).
Moreover, there’s the Roman infrastructure to consider. Rome’s economy was very primitive compared with ours, but they could support what was for that time large cities that it could supply with food and water along roads and with aqueducts. This was important because Christianity largely spread through cities. Luke reports Paul’s activities in Acts according to the city where he was preaching, and most of Paul’s epistles are grouped by the city the church is in (so are the seven letters to the churches in Revelation). The word pagan, in fact, comes from the Latin for field because the rural populations were the holdouts for the old religions as Christianity spread.
There’s another interesting historical aside I’d like to pursue. The concept of adoption is crucial to the New Testament and our identity as God’s children, but it’s almost entirely absent from the Old Testament. Other than Mordecai adopting Esther, I can’t think of any Jews doing that. The Romans, however, were all about adoption. They even took it to the most farcical extremes. Augustus adopted his wife Livia in his will. Earlier, Roman patricians had had plebeians adopt them so they could run for the influential office of tribune without forfeiting their patrician status. One of Julius Caesar’s opponents had had himself adopted by a plebeian who was younger than himself! Anyway, however ridiculous the Romans got, it would be a theme Paul’s readers would readily relate to. In the same vein, he describes Christ’s Second Coming with the imagery of a Roman triumph, a parade that often celebrated the most unjust wars and ruthless campaigns.
So the first Christmas came at exactly the right moment, one that took centuries to lead up to. Never has the Mediterranean world experienced such unity and stability of language and politics as it did in under the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It proved a splendid nursery for the infant Church.
Something you probably noticed throughout this post is how surprising these developments were. Jeremiah bewailed the miseries that befell his people under Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but God used it to pave the way for the expansion of His kingdom. You wouldn’t think God would let the world become saturated by a culture as perverse as the Greco-Roman one before He sent His Son into it, but that was the one He deliberately set up to work with. He put in power a man who tried to murder His Son right after He was born, and He put influence in the hands of those who finally did find a way to murder Him. This Christmas, I hope you’ll enjoy Matthew and Luke’s accounts but also say with Paul, “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33, KJV).