During the time of Christ’s birth, childhood, teaching ministry and death, Israel’s history and Rome’s history are intersecting or overlapping. You can’t read the gospel accounts without somewhere seeing the presence of Rome, and in some respects it looked like Rome was everything that Israel wasn’t. For example:
- The Roman Empire was big. When Luke records, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed;” we can easily dismiss that the phrase all the world is hyperbole. Were people in China taxed? No. But the Roman empire was, like the guy says in the used car commercial I see every night before the news, “H-U-U-U-G-E.”
- The Roman Empire was rich. We just mentioned taxation. Maybe Rome didn’t invent it, but the perfected it to both an art and a science. Matthew 22 speaks to the coinage used and the taxation, “[Jesus said] “Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s…” And of course we remember that, among others, Matthew and Zacchaeus worked in the multi-level, tax franchise system.
- The Roman Empire was powerful. The entire narrative of Christ’s life takes place against the backdrop of Roman occupation. Many translations of Matthew 5:41 make it clear that when Jesus says, “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two;” the whoever or the someone is a Roman soldier. During the key events that we’ve just remembered at Easter, it a soldier who compels a passerby to help — “As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.” (Matthew 27:32) and a soldier who speaks to Christ’s identity after his death: “When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!‘”
But Rome had some weaknesses, one of which is that as a family run business the empire was unstable. The fear of insurrection from within no doubt created some insecurities.
So if we want to think of this in terms of a balance sheet we have something looks like this:
It’s because of this insecurity that Rome’s leadership found the little territory at the east end of the Mediterranean so troublesome. Why did they need to worry? In terms of the above criteria:
- Israel wasn’t big
- Israel wasn’t rich
- Israel wasn’t powerful
And yet, Israel’s army had a history of defeating its enemies against unbelievable odds. They were a feisty lot of people whose Levitical laws compelled them to not assimilate to their surrounding neighbors (or occupying forces) but to maintain a distinct identity. While other nations had crumbled and vanished, Israel had a long, proud history and its people could trace their ancestry back to Adam.
This is one aspect of Jewish tradition that is affirmed in Christian teachings today:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2 ESV)
Therefore, Rome’s only weakness was Israel’s greatest strength: Their longstanding stable history that had even survived occupation. (To look at some well known early history, think of the time of Moses, or the famine period at the time of Joseph.)
How does all this apply to us today?
We should identify with Israel. 1 Cor. 1:26 depicts the early church this way:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
I’ve deliberately held off on our key verse for the day (often at the top of these readings) until the very end and here it is:
Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits. ~Daniel 11:32 NKJV
The king of the North will tell lies to God’s people. Those who have not obeyed God will be ruined. But there will be some who know God and obey him. They will be strong and fight back. (ICB)