Last time we looked at the book of Daniel (specifically chapter 2) to set the stage of the Christmas story. This story comes at a time where the world was under severe oppression. A child was born of the Jews – the savior of the world. His birth is revolutionary because of the nature of that birth. His Kingdom (the pebble that turns into a mountain) is different than all other kingdoms. It isn’t made of human hands. It has a completely different nature and character.
The Roman Empire came to be by brute force. Some stories are as follows: Germanicus slaughtered the population across the Rhine (Belgium, Netherlands, and Northern Germany). For 50 miles he wasted the countryside. Neither age nor sex inspired pity. Only the destruction of the race would end the war. Pompeii conquered the east. On an inscription in the Temple of Minerva (Roman god), Pompeii boasts about taking 12 million subjects at surrender in 1,500 towns.
Roman soldiers would enjoy some entertainment by nailing their prisoners in different postures to a cross. There didn’t need to be a reason, other than Rome took over your country/people, and now you’re subject to Rome. It’s even said that there were (in some cities) so many crucified that there could not be found enough space for the crosses, nor crosses for the bodies. One historian recorded that when he looks out on a conquered city, he must think that they do this for the simple sake of terror.
In a city named Magdala, Cassius enslaved 30,000 people. By the way, Magdala was the city that Mary Magdalene came from (hence the “last name”). In the year 4 A.D., there was a revolt in the city Sepphoris. Sepphoris was about 3 miles away from Nazareth, and to the Jews of Nazareth was considered the city on the hill. The same general that burned Sepphoris to the ground for their revolt also totally destroyed a town called Emmaus. So, around the time that Jesus was a teenager, there was a revolt in the city on a hill, and the city was burned to the ground 3.5 miles away from him. He would have been able to see the 2,000 crucified bodies from Nazareth.
Now, Caesar Augustus was Julius’ adopted son, and he came to power around the time that Jesus was born. He brought the whole world under his power. There was no longer a consul that he would stand with. Augustus was declared by the parliament to be god in the flesh; incarnate. Temples were built, and prayers and sacrifices were offered to the god on earth Augustus.
Wherever Augustus conquered a city, there would be an alter and monument built in his honor. Those cities were called ecclesia. Ecclesia is the Greek word used in our New Testaments for Church.
A Roman poet had proclaimed in his poem that Augustus was the one who is to come, the divine being to bring salvation to humanity. Which, when John the Baptist is imprisoned, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Interesting.
The poet Virgil said that Augustus would bring universal peace, and would lead in the blessing of a renewed humanity. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that he will return at the “renewal of all things…” Interesting.
In the history books, you can find a “strange star” that appeared in the heavens before Jesus’ birth. Augustus claimed it was his father. Witnesses came forth and proclaimed they saw the son of god ascending to the right hand of the father Zeus. So Augustus said, “If my dad is God, then I am the Son of God.” So, in 17 B.C.E., Caesar claimed he to be god, and had a 12-day celebration that he called the 12 days of advent.
The people celebrated because the hour had come that the climax of history was here. Caesar Augustus had united the whole world. No one else had done such a thing. And here, Augustus was to bring peace. Remember how he conquered the world, though. He will bring peace?
During the advent, the priests of Caesar sent incense to sprinkle upon you to find cleansing. So Caesar Augustus offered the forgiveness of your sins. He was seen as the mediator between heaven and earth. He was the high priest of the Roman people. Coins were made with Augustus and his star on them, and an inscription that said, “Augustus, the son of God.” Money was a fast way to get propaganda out to the world. Everyone uses currency, so to make a coinage with engravings upon it would keep people up to date on news and current events. Jesus was later asked about these coins and said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
A popular slogan of the day was, “Salvation is to be found in none except Augustus.” In fact, when they would go to take over cities, if the city would say, “Caesar is Lord,” then they would turn your city into an epicenter of Caesar worship. If you didn’t pronounce Caesar to be Lord, then they would kill you. 30,000 people could be slaughtered at a time. Paul, when writing to the Romans, declared, “Anyone who confesses with their mouth Jesus is Lord, and believes in their heart that He has been raised from the dead shall be saved.”
For such a large army, you need to be able to pay that army. Taxes in the time of Jesus were somewhere around 80 or 90 percent of the Jew’s wages. After you add Temple tax and Herod’s tax and Caesar’s tax and the tax collector’s share, you were left with somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of your money…
This brings about an interesting struggle. For the Jews, when you came into the Promised Land, your family was given a piece of land. Now the land is in your possession, and it is your responsibility to not lose the family land. It was God’s land, and He has given it to you. You are getting taxed more and more and more so that Augustus can rule more of the world. What eventually happens is that you get to the point where you can’t afford to keep your family land.
Imagine the guilt. Generation after generation has kept this land and farmed it. For centuries, your family has owned this land. Now it comes into your hands, and you are forced to sell it. If you can’t tend the family land, then you have to find some other skill and go wherever you can find money. You have to feed your family somehow.
Jesus’ father Joseph is a carpenter. In the Jesus story, Mary and Joseph need to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Why is Joseph not living on his family land in Bethlehem? The whole Gospel story starts out of rough financial times because Caesar has brought “peace.” Caesar is going to make everything great. Because he is now in power, he will rule the world and bring it into a universal age of salvation and peace… Has Caesar’s rule brought salvation and peace to Joseph? No.
The story starts in Caesar’s Empire, and it is a political push against the powers of darkness that promote the men of this world and promise things that evil and darkness cannot give. The Gospel is a Gospel of light and freedom. Everything about the first century Church was designed to be a push against the system of the world and to display the true freedom from oppression.
Caesar or Christ?
In Romans 10, there is a fascinating verse that says, “Anyone who will confess with their mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in their heart that God has raised Him from the dead, then you shall be saved.” What is so interesting about this verse is that it is completely a ploy against Caesar. Who is Lord? Caesar or Christ? Who brings peace? Caesar or Christ? When the soldiers come and you need to worship Caesar, who do you really think is Lord? Caesar or Christ?
Caesar used to take bread and give it away in public as a symbol of his provision. This tradition was called “breaking bread.” So the first group of Christians would gather together and call it breaking bread. The disciples would essentially gather together and go around the room and ask the question of if anyone was lacking. No one considered their things to be theirs, but shared all their possessions with one another. If someone needed shoes, then they were given shoes. If someone needed a coat, then they were given a coat. If someone was in need of food, then they were given food. Everyone shared all things. Then, after everyone’s needs were taken care of, they would have a meal together. The question was then asked, “Who is really the provider? Jesus or Augustus? Who is really the Prince of Peace? Jesus or Augustus? Who is really Lord? Jesus or Augustus?”
The pivotal point of the Gospel in the first century was not man’s sin and our redemption through Jesus Christ. The main focal point of the Gospel was Caesar. He has claimed to be all these things, and has promised all of these things… but where is the evidence? Who is really bringing peace? Who is really Lord? This was the Gospel.
The good news is that there is a kingdom that has been established on the earth. This kingdom isn’t ruled by the unjust gods of this world. It isn’t established in bloodshed. This kingdom has been established in nonviolence. One of the famous words of Jesus to Peter was, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Caesar certainly knew the sword and was not afraid to use it.
You have these two kingdoms established in the earth: the Kingdom of God, and the kingdom of darkness. We can still see these two kingdoms at work today. The first is based upon peace and justice and hope and freedom and love. The second is based upon violence, greed, slander, manipulation, torment, and slavery. Who is Lord?