Good news

The birth of Jesus came suddenly and unexpectedly, at a time when there was little hope left that God would fulfill his promise to bring a Messiah to his chosen people, the Jews. Luke made a specific reference to a historical event, so that the date of Jesus’ birth would be accurately recorded. He said, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria)” (Luke 2:1-2). The Roman government was at the height of its success in dominating the world and wanted to take advantage of its opportunity to collect taxes from every person that fell under its jurisdiction. God used the decree of a pagan emperor to fulfill an important prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2. It says, “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

The location of the Messiah’s birth wouldn’t have been as critical if the Jews had remained in the Promised Land and their population kept in tact. Because the Jews had been scattered throughout the world during their captivity, and their geographical footprint altered by Roman occupation, the only way to know for certain that Jesus was actually a descendent of King David was to have his birth occur during the Roman census. Luke recorded, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:4-5). Joseph’s residence in Nazareth indicated that his relationship to King David was of no benefit to him. Most likely, it was unknown to everyone around him, and perhaps even to Joseph himself, that he was of royal descent until the Roman census occurred.

The shepherds that were keeping watch over their flocks the night that Jesus was born may have been the only group of people that were collectively willing to believe the good news they were told about their Messiah’s birth. The fact that the shepherds were given a sign to assure them that what the angel said was true suggests that even they were skeptical about the message they received (Luke 2:12). After seeing and hearing “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” (Luke 2:13) it appears that the shepherds were still unconvinced. At the conclusion of this amazing worship event, Luke 2:15 tells us, “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” It wasn’t until the shepherds saw the sign promised them, the babe lying in a manger, that their belief became evident. Luke said, afterwards “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” (Luke 2:20).

Spiritual insight

The prophet Zachariah could be the most fortunate of all the Old Testament prophets because he was given an extremely close and in-depth look at God’s plan of salvation. There are numerous prophecies contained within Zachariah’s book that show without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. Although Zachariah was a contemporary of Haggai and was called to preach at almost the exact same time, the messages of these two men were very different. Haggai spoke in a very practical way about the need for God’s temple to be rebuilt, while Zachariah focused on the bigger picture and shared the spiritual insight he gained from eight visions he was given of God’s transformation of his earthly kingdom. The first thing Zachariah pointed out was that God was not finished with the Jews. They would be restored to his favor and would eventually triumph over their enemies.

Zachariah’s first interactive experience in the spiritual realm involved an interpreting angel that enabled him to understand the activities he was witnessing. The initial scene appeared to be a spiritual outpost where God’s messengers gathered to report their findings on earth. The messengers reported to a man identified as “the angel of the LORD” (Zachariah 1:11). “Traditional Christian interpretation has held that this ‘angel’ was a preincarnate manifestation of Christ as God’s Messenger-Servant” (note on Genesis 16:7). Zachariah 1:11 states, “And they answered the angel of the LORD that stood among the myrtle trees, and said, We have walked to and fro through the earth, and behold, all the earth sitteth still and is at rest.” Looking at Zachariah’s eight night visions as a progressive unfolding of future events, it is likely that the messengers’ report of stillness and rest referred to the period of time when the Medo-Persian Empire existed. For the most part, God’s people were allowed to do what they wanted to during the reigns of  kings Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes (538 – 432 B.C.).

Zachariah’s second vision showed that the temporary rest God’s people enjoyed would come to an end when God began to restructure the kingdoms that existed on earth. Daniel’s prophecy revealed that the Medo-Persian Empire that had conquered the Babylonians would be replaced by the Greek Empire, and then, the Roman Empire would be established (Daniel 7:4-7). Each of these kingdoms would become more terrifying than the first, until finally, God would cut-off the Gentile kingdoms (Zachariah 1:21). Zachariah’s third vision revealed that God’s people would flood the borders of Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s birth (Zachariah 2:4-5). Apparently, God would supernaturally enable people to return to the Promised Land that had not previously done so (Zachariah 2:9). According to Zachariah’s prophecy, God’s eternal kingdom would begin to be established on earth during the ministry of Jesus; the evidence being a voluntary joining of all the nations into a single spiritual kingdom. It says in Zachariah 2:11, “And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee.”

Gabriel’s explanation

Daniel’s second vision provided further details about the difficulties God’s people would experience before their Messiah was born. The location of his vision was significant. Daniel said, “And I saw in a vision; and it came to pass, when I saw, that I was at Shushan in the palace, which is in the province of Elam; and I saw in a vision, and I was by the river of Ulai” (Daniel 8:2). Shushan was the capital of Persia and it was noted several times in the book of Esther as the place where the Jews would face extermination. It could be that God chose to show Daniel the future of his people at this location because it marked a critical turning point in their deliverance from their enemies.

In his vision, Daniel saw a ram “pushing westward, and northward, and southward; so that no beasts might stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and became great” (Daniel 8:4). Then, Daniel saw a goat with a notable horn between his eyes come against the ram and defeat him (Daniel 8:5-7). As a result of his victory, the goat became stronger, but eventually, his great horn was broken and out of it came up four notable horns “and out of one of them came forth a little horn, which waxed exceeding great, toward the south, and toward the east, and toward the pleasant land” (Daniel 8:8-9).

Daniel’s vision concluded with a picture of God’s temple being desecrated by the little horn. At the time of Daniel’s vision, about 551 B.C., God’s temple lay in ruins. It had already been destroyed by king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Daniel was confused and  needed God to help him understand what was going on in his vision. It says in Daniel 8:15-16, “And it came to pass, when I, even I Daniel, had seen the vision, and sought for the meaning, then behold, there stood before me as the appearance of a man. And I heard a man’s voice between the banks of the Ulai, which called, and said, Gabriel, make this man to understand the vision.”

The angel Gabriel is believed to be one of only three archangels identified in the Bible. The fact that he was specifically directed to explain the vision to Daniel indicated that the information was probably only available to this high ranking official in God’s kingdom. Gabriel said of himself in Luke 1:19, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee.” Unto Daniel, Gabriel said, “Understand, O son of man: for at the time of the end shall be the vision” (Daniel 8:17). What Daniel was expected to understand was that there would be a conclusion to the Israelites’ story. God would one day bring to an end the earthly kingdom that he had once inhabited.