What do you love the most about the Christmas season? The Christmas season is one of my favorite seasons of the year. I love the beauty of the season with all of the lights, and the music, and the festivities, and the special food, and the time we spend with family and friends.
But above all that, I absolutely love the intense focus on the coming of Jesus to this earth, to live the perfect life that none of us could live, to exhibit his authority over Satan, Sin, and Death, and to ultimately give his life as a ransom to redeem sinners from the presence, and the penalty, and the power of sin, to leave the grave empty on the third day and to leave us with a commission to reach the lost and to make disciples in light of the hope of his promised return.
So, over the next four Sundays we will study through the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) to gain an understanding of how each biblical author describes Jesus and how we should respond to each of those four descriptions. The reality is that our Western version of Jesus does not always hold up to the biblical description of who Jesus is. In our Western version of Jesus, we oftentimes relegate him down to being a man who does not mind our sin, or being a man who is ok with us leaving him on a shelf until we hit a roadblock of some kind in our lives, or being a man who wears the clothing of one political party over another.
One of the things that I am passionate about is helping people to come to know the real biblical Jesus, to hear from him for themselves (Jn. 4), and to make him known among the lost (Matt. 28). To really begin to know the real Biblical Jesus, we must come to understand the massive differences and similarities between what we celebrate at Christmas in the West, and what was happening in the culture of the East when Jesus was born.
THE CULTURE AT THE TIME OF JESUS’ BIRTH
I want to take a few minutes to summarize the general characteristics of the culture during the time of Jesus’ birth so that we can understand what was happening in Israel, what Israel’s general worldview was, and what the Jews were expecting when Jesus was born into that manger on that cold Christmas morning.
THE GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF JUDAISM
At the time of Christ’s birth, Israel’s religion had become known as Judaism. Judaism in the first century was born out of a period of time known as the intertestamental period. This was a period of time that lasted “from the last quarter of the fifth century BC to the first century AD.”2 During this period of time (roughly 400 years leading up to the birth of Jesus) Israel experienced four historical events that helped to shape the political and religious landscape of the nation of Israel.3
- The return of the Jews to their homeland under Persian rule (424 – 331 BC).
- The Hellenization of the Middle Eastern world under Greek rule (331 – 167 BC).
- The Maccabean Revolt and establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty (167 – 63 BC).
- The institution of Roman rule (63 BC through the New Testament Era).
I want to press pause here and explain the Maccabean Revolt because I think it holds some tremendous significance to understanding what was under the surface in the culture of Israel immediately preceding Jesus’ birth.
The Maccabean revolt (167-142 BC) was led by a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons. The revolt was a response to an order from the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. Antiochus ordered Mattathias “to sacrifice on one of the unlawful alters Antiochus had erected in a small town in northwest Judea called Modein”.4
This was an especially significant event for the Jews because it happened right on the heels of Antiochus’ looting of Jerusalem on a Sabbath where he slaughtered many Jews, renamed the temple after a Geek god, erected pagan alters throughout the country, sacrificed swine on those alters, prohibited Jewish religious practices (such as circumcision and Sabbath observance) as well as banned and burned copies of the Torah.5
The Jews saw all of this as a fulfillment of the “abomination of desolation” that was predicted in Daniel 11:31 – 35 and according to one author “little further provocation was necessary to start a Jewish revolt”and this event “like the events that led up to it, intensified Jew-Gentile hatred to a degree not typically found in Old Testament times”.6
This “intensified Jew-Gentile hatred” holds far reaching implications for many of the events of the New Testament such as Paul’s speech in Acts 22:3 – 21 where he brought Greeks into the temple and recounted God’s call on his life to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles which nearly ended Paul’s life.7
So much more could be said and so much more has been said in various volumes of literary work on this subject. But suffice it to say that this portion of Israel’s history brings a whole new level of understanding to the mission of Jesus as he is being born in our text today as well as Paul’s words to the Ephesian church, years later, in regards to the reconciling work of the cross for both Jew and Gentile alike (Eph. 2:11-22).
Thank God for Jesus being born into this world to go to the cross on our behalf! Nothing but the cross of Christ could reconcile centuries of built-up hatred between the Jews and the Gentiles as we are both meant to be reconciled to God and to one another.
Suffice it to say, each of those four historical periods that I just listed out were very significant to the formation of the culture of first-century Judaism in that they created “a cornucopia [an abundant supply]of religious options” for the Jews.8 This “cornucopia of religious options” manifested its pluralistic head through Hellenistic religion where everything from Greek mythology, philosophy, mystery religions, magic, Gnosticism and emperor worship influenced the culture.9
This pluralistic society was the birthing ground for first-century Judaism. The characteristics of first-century Judaism are numerous and are sometimes “easier and [sometimes] harder [to study] than the study of Hellenistic religion” among the Greek/Roman culture that Judaism existed within.10Nevertheless, we can still construct the general characteristics of first century Judaism through a careful study of early historical resources such as Josephus the early Jewish historian, as well as the apocrypha (books that were written during the time of Jesus). This kind of study can be done while identifying “numerous consistent trends and developments with significant” connections to our study of the Bible.11
All of this is to say that we can summarize the trends and developments that shaped the general characteristics of first-century Judaism that was rising up out of the ashes of the intertestamental period during the time of Christ’s arrival upon this earth.12
- There was an increased interest in angelology and demonology. Spiritualism was on the rise.
- There was an emergence of a large quantity of poetry and wisdom literature. People were becoming more and more educated.
- There was an increasingly positive view of human nature. The doctrine of sin was becoming more and more watered down.
- Prayer and good works were viewed as substitutes for animal sacrifice. The sacrificial system that pointed to Jesus was being traded for more culturally acceptable forms of practicing religion.
- There was a growing interest in apocalyptic themes and literature. People were becoming consumed with the end of the world.
- There was a centralization of synagogue worship and study. The synagogue was becoming the place where God’s people worshipped therefore the lifestyle of worship was being diminished.
- The scribes had risen to a high level of social prominence. People were beginning to look to their spiritual leaders to make an impact on the social structures they lived within; they became more political.
- The Sanhedrin was becoming very authoritative in Jewish life. The personal aspect of relating to God was getting trampled under the feet of authoritarian leaders.
- Evangelizing the Gentiles had become very prominent. This was being done not so much because of the good news being preached, but much more because of the need for numbers to leverage political power and social reform.
I think you might be able to see some of the similarities between first-century Judaism and the Western church today. But just in case it is not crystal clear, I think we can synthesize and summarize these general characteristics by describing what one author refers to as “badges and symbols of national identity”.13 Much like us in the West, with our American flag, our Constitution, and our Bill of Rights, first-century Jews also had badges and symbols of their national identity.
There were three badges of national identity that helped a first century Jew “remain a member of the community in good standing” and those three badges of national identity were strict observance of dietary laws, Sabbath keeping and circumcision.14
On top of those three badges of national identity were three symbols of nationalism. Those three symbols could be summed up as “the temple, the land and the Torah [the first five books of the Bible].”15 The temple was the location of frequent (daily and annual) religious practice. Regarding the temple, it was the dream of the Jews to live in the land free “from oppressors” and they believed that this freedom would be the direct result of “obedience to the Law.”16
These badges and symbols, good things that they are, quickly became the main things that the Jewish people found their identity in. It might be fair to say that while these traditional badges and symbols may have been motivated by a desire for holiness, they quickly became legalistic practices that were fiercely confronted by both Jesus and Paul (Mark 7:1 – 23; Gal. 5:6; John 2:13 – 22; 4:19 – 24; Matt. 5:17 – 48).17
SUMMARIZING THE CULTURE AT THE TIME OF JESUS’ BIRTH
In summary, the general culture (the worldview and expectations) of most Jews during the days of Jesus’ life on earth would have been characteristically monotheistic (they believed in one God) and moralistic (they wanted to be good people); there was also an emergence of distinct groups within Judaism such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots that all stood in “sharp contrast” to the increasingly Hellenistic (Greek/Roman) culture that boasted of its pluralism (multiple ways to God and multiple gods) and its syncretism (the combining of what is sacred and holy with things that were filthy and unholy).18
So, the Jews followed one God, they wanted to be good people, and they were bound together by their observance of dietary laws, the Sabbath day, and circumcision and they were also united by their love for the temple, the land, and the Torah. It is this culture that Jesus steps into in the four gospel accounts we are studying over the next few weeks. Jesus according to Matthew is up first!
JESUS ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
The main question we need to ask as we study is: Who is Jesus according to the gospel author? So, this week we will ask: Who is Jesus according to Matthew? And what significance does the biblical Jesus hold for us today in the West as we prepare to celebrate Christmas?19
#1: JESUS IS THE MESSIAH/CHRIST (1:1; 17 – 21)
In the earliest portion of the text of Matthews gospel, the text we read at the beginning of this message, Matthew refers to Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” at the beginning of his genealogy and at the end of it he refers to Jesus as “Christ” in verse 17. This shows us that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ or Savior that Israel and the entire world had been looking forward to for many generations.
Matthew builds on this theme of Jesus being our Messiah and our Christ when he relays the words of the angel to Joseph regarding Mary’s pregnancy where he says in verse 21 that “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Once again, Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior that the world has been looking for since the beginning of time; he was born to die to pay the price for our sins so that by faith in his finished work at the cross, we can be saved and set free to live in obedient worship to God the Father Almighty.
There is no national identity that can save us from the presence, the penalty, and the power of Satan, Sin, and Death. There is no moral code that can save us. There are no multiple gods to run to for salvation. Salvation is not meant for one select group of people; all people can run to Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. Jesus is literally the most iconic figure in all of history, not just because he is the Messiah but because he is also Immanuel, the second description Matthew gives us.
#2: JESUS IS IMMANUEL (1:22 – 23)
In Matthew 1:22 – 23 we read that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” God in the person of Jesus Christ, came down from his perfect place in Heaven to walk with us and to be with us in this filthy, sin-filled, broken place we call Earth. He did not make us come to him; He came to us to be with us. All the other so-called gods of this period (and ours if you think about it) required that we do something to attract their attention to get them to draw near.
Fix your philosophy, pay your dues, pursue more pleasure, go to church more, get your theology straight, get a better social standing, cut your hair just right, wear a certain kind of clothing, be a better person, better yet… just be who you want to be – only God can judge you. These were some of the ways that the culture in Jesus’ day sought to draw close to God or a god.
But Jesus flips all of this on its head when he comes into the world in a fashion that is not consistent with our badges and symbols of national identity. Speaking of national identity, Jesus does not just come to us as the Messiah to save us or the God who wants to be with us. Matthew also says that Jesus comes to this earth as the reigning King of kings and Lord of lords!
#3: JESUS IS THE KING (2:1 – 18)
In chapter 2:1 – 6, Matthew tells us that “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel!’” And of course, immediately following this, the wise men do locate baby Jesus and they worship him as the King of kings and Lord of lords (2:7 – 12).
One of the hardest parts of following God is removing myself from my own self-made throne. This was the problem King Herod had. He should have looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, Immanuel, King in the birth of Christ. But instead, he was troubled, and he tried to murder Jesus as he literally slaughtered thousands of babies in his hatred of anyone who would attempt to dethrone him (2:13 – 18).
Think with me for a moment about all of the instances where Jesus proved that he is the King of kings and Lord of lords; the one within whom resides all of the Kingly authority of God in the flesh. His authority was unmatched:20
- Over people (4:20, 22).
- Over paralysis and suffering (8:6, 13).
- Over illness and disease (9:22; 14:35, 36).
- Over blindness (9:30).
- Over leprosy (8:3).
- Over the wind and the water (8:23 – 27).
- Over the temple (12:3 – 6).
- Over sin (9:2).
- Over demons (8:31 – 32; 15:28).
- Over nature (21:18 – 19).
- Over history (26:64).
- Over the individual destinies of all human beings (7:21 – 23; 11:27; 13:40 – 43).
- Over his own destiny (16:21; 20:17 – 19; 26:45 – 46).
- Over his mission on earth (10:1; 28:18 – 20).
- Over space, time, and the future (18:19 – 20; 28:20).
Suffice it to say, Jesus’ authority and power as the King over all the universe is totally unmatched. Yet, there is no telling what we will do to avoid bowing our knees in humble submission to Jesus as our King. We may not murder babies as king Herod did – although our western culture loves to murder babies in defiance of God’s commands for sexual purity – but we might attempt to drag the King of kings off his throne as we pursue pleasure, comfort, security, acceptance, control, and power at all costs.
Our thrones are setup for self-worship. To follow Jesus means to submit to him as the King of kings and to ask him to demolish our self-made thrones so that we can live in freedom according to his instructions. This leads me to the next description of Jesus throughout the gospel of Matthew. Jesus is our Messiah, he is our Immanuel, and he is our King. But he is also our Teacher, our Preacher, and our Healer.
#4: JESUS IS THE TEACHER, PREACHER, AND HEALER (4:17; 23 – 25; 7:28 – 29)
In chapter 4:17, 23 – 25, Matthew says that “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So, his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” Jesus did not shrink back from preaching repentance, teaching the gospel, and miraculously healing all who came to him.
Furthermore, Matthew tells us in chapter 7:28 – 29 that “when Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes”. You may remember that part of our cultural analysis of Israel revealed that these early Israelite believers had begun to rely on the scribes for spiritual nourishment at the expense of a personal vibrant relationship with God. Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and miraculous healings were waking them up to the truth that God can be known personally and that He was not an impersonal god who was only interested in behavior modification.
How often do you and I need to be reminded that we need Jesus to speak to us personally? How often do we need to be drawn back from living on the coat tails of someone else’s faith? How often do we need our hearts rekindled with the teaching, preaching, and miraculous works of God in Christ Jesus? I would submit that God’s plan for this is bound up in our personal study of His Word amidst the community of the body of Christ – otherwise known as the church; of which Christ is the founder and foundation.
#5: JESUS IS THE FOUNDER OF THE CHURCH (4:19; 16:13-19; 21-27; 28:18-20)
In chapter 4:19, Jesus gathers his disciples, and he tells them to “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” In chapter 16:13 – 19, Jesus questions his disciples about who people say that he is and upon Peter’s confession in verse 16 that Jesus “is the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus commends Peter and explains in verse 18 that “on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The church that Jesus plants is meant to be a war machine that rescues people from within a yard of hell.
Furthermore, Jesus’ disciples will receive the power to bind people into the church and the kingdom of heaven based upon their confession faith or expel them from the church and the kingdom of heaven based upon their inability to confess Christ crucified, risen, and returning (16:19, 21 – 23).
We also cannot fail to mention Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be a disciple who is an active part of the church he is planting. A disciple, according to Jesus in Matthew 16:24 – 27, is someone who will “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (vv. 24 – 25). The reality here is that you are not a disciple if you forfeit your soul by chasing worldly pleasures (v. 26) because Jesus himself will repay (reward) both the faithful and the rebellious when he returns (v. 27).
Finally, after his death and resurrection, Jesus approached his disciples in Matthew 28:18 – 20 and gave them the Great Commission when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus is the one who is the founder and the foundation of his church. He is the one who calls his disciples, transforms his disciples, models what it means to carry a cross as we die to our selfish and sinful desires, develops his church into the battering ram that knocks down the gates of hell, and authorizes his church to seek and to save the lost through the preaching of the gospel. We must never forget that in all of this, Jesus promises to be with us and in us by the power of his indwelling Spirit (Matt. 3; 28:20).
In conclusion – as we enter into this Christmas season with all of the beauty of the lights, the music, the food, the gift giving, and the joy of friends and family – let us not forget the Jesus we see in Matthew’s gospel. By way of application…
- Trust Jesus as your Savior. Though we live in a culture that values self-expression, self-promotion, and self-gratification, may we be increasingly drawn to our Savior who came to deal with the problem of sin once and for all.
- Believe that Jesus is with you always. Though we live in a culture that values immediate gratification of every kind, let us be drawn to our God who is with us through thick and through thin and who is calling us to surrender to him in repentance.
- Surrender to Jesus as your King. Though we live in a culture that values rebellion against authority because we are supposedly the masters of our own destinies, let us draw near to our King who quiets the wind and the waves and the demons that seek to destroy us.
- Listen to and obey Jesus as your teacher, preacher, and healer. Though we live in a culture that plugs its ears to the truth and mocks everything that is holy, let us draw near to Jesus who desires to teach us the truth, who wants to preach the gospel of repentance to our hearts, and who loves to heal us of all that ails us.
- Become part of the church that is planted upon the Rock of Ages. Though we live in a culture that values rugged individualism, let us draw near to the Rock of ages upon whom the church is founded – the one who shed his blood and allowed his body to be torn to pieces at the cross of Calvary so that we could be united to him in our confession of faith, the one who left the grave empty, signifying his victory over Satan, Sin, and Death, and the one who has promised to return to take us to heaven to be with him forever.
Let us draw near, not to the Jesus of the surrounding culture, but to the Jesus of the Bible, who alone is powerful to save, who is with us until the very end, who demands our submission to him as our King, who constantly instructs, provokes, and heals us from our sicknesses and our sins, and who is the solid foundation under our feet when the sands of the culture are slipping away. Let us draw near to the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel! – Amen!!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd Edition (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 8.
3 Ibid., 10 – 27.
4 Ibid., 17.
5 Ibid., 16.
6 Ibid., 17 – 18.
7 Ibid., 18.
8 Ibid., 29.
9 Ibid., 29 – 41.
10 Ibid., 41.
11 Ibid., 41 – 45.
12 Ibid., 45 – 49.
13 Ibid., 49.
17 Ibid., 49.
18 Ibid., 49 – 55.
19 Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 77 – 86. (Note: The rest of this paper relied heavily on the material cited here.)
20 Ibid., 82 – 83.