On Monday, we observed seven ways in which the setting for Christ’s birth was full of darkness. Today, we will continue to look at the birth of Christ, but now from the angle that it was the Lord who creates light and darkness (Isa 45:7) that brought about the darkness so that the light of Christ might be ever more brilliant. Notice how in each of these instances, God is the sovereign author behind the darkness.
1. God is the only free person in the universe. Our free will is limited and confined by innumerable factors; location, money, knowledge, and most importantly spiritual life effect our freedom. Not so God, nothing inhibits him. He is in heaven and he does as he pleases (Ps 115:3). Since Malachi, he chose to be silent. No one muffled his voice. Conversely, God is never forced to speak, and so the spiritual darkness of the Intertestamental Period is a result of God’s free choice.
There is a lesson in this. God does not create darkness, so much as he pulls back the light. In this case, the spiritual darkness is not something God speaks into existence; it is his intentional lack of speech. This is often how God controls calamity and evil. He never does evil, but he will permit evil men or evil spirits freedom to act according to their natures. This is different from every aspect of goodness in the world—in that God is the active speaker.
2. God put Israel under Roman rule. Israel’s captivity was in God’s full control. As the one who raises exalts and humbles nations (cf. Ps 33:10-11; Isa 40:15, 17, 22-23), God placed Israel in the darkest period of their history. This was in part due to his judgment upon their idolatry; this was in part to prepare the way for Jesus; and this was in part preparing the way for the gospel to travel along the Roman roads. Israel could not see it at the time. Neither could the Roman Emperors. But one major reason why Rome flourished as it did was because God himself was building the infrastructure necessary for the message of the gospel to travel.
I wonder if we think like that? Do we think that giftedness of men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates was only for their Silicon Valley companies? No, even though men like them may deny the Lord, God gifts them so that their innovations and productivity can be used for the advancement of the gospel. This is how God works in history. One way that advances in technology are being picked up and used for the gospel ministry is found in the ministry of Mark Overstreet and T4 Global ministries.
3. Even in the case of the false religions in Israel, it was God who permitted it. His spiritual absence, created a vacuum where all kinds of Jewish religions rose up. Many in Israel, instead of simply trusting God’s word—like Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon—came up with all kinds of contrived ways to gain God’s favor—Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes, Zealots were all human solutions to the spiritual and political problems of the day.
4. It was God’s eternal intention to bring Jesus into the world through a virgin. In order for God to take on flesh, a natural union could not take place. The virgin birth is necessary, because without it Jesus could in no way be divine and human. So from Isaiah 7:14 on (maybe even before if you read Genesis 3:15 as promising a virgin birth), God’s word predicted that a virgin would give birth to a child. Isaiah 9 explains the kind of child this would be—one born in darkness who would bring light, one that would bring peace, the kind that would never be taken away. Thus, the near divorce of Mary, the isolation from her family, the insults from strangers, and the lifelong accusations that Jesus mother incurred was God’s doing! God blessed Mary by afflicting Mary with this child. He does the same in our lives, too (2 Cor 1:3-7).
5. In order to fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies, God moved Mary and Joseph by way of Caesar’s census. There is great irony in God’s redemptive story. In this case, it is a king who takes count of his kingdom, all the while the king of kings comes with no accounting from the world (John 1:9-11). In Caesar’s census, this mighty king thought that he was proving his power to the world. But really, he was taking a census because God wanted to move two people from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The prophecy in Micah 5:2 needed to be fulfilled, and God used the mightiest man and the world as a pawn, in order to bring his scepter-wielding Son into the world in the right place.
There are so many lessons in this. For one thing, what we think is important in our lives, may be the most meaningless thing that we do. Likewise, what the world deems as important may not be. The way God works in history should free us from the approval of men, and should recalibrate our lives to live for his purposes. After all history is His Story, and the only lasting part we have is what comes from him.
6. Mary and Joseph’s poverty was ordained by God, so that it would accentuate the gift of the wise men. Matthew 2:10-11 records the exceeding joy of the wise men, and how when they found the babe, they offered gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But these are not just gifts like we give on Christmas morning, they are sacrifices of praise. Matthew records that these travelers came from a far to worship the king of kings.
And the gifts they give are significant. For one, it is likely that the gifts would finance the travels that Jesus’ family would make to Egypt in the coming months. But even more significant, they fulfill prophecy. In Isaiah 60, the great prophet gives an oracle describing the nations coming to worship at God’s dwelling place, and it just so happens that Isaiah develops the them of light coming into the darkness–darkness ordained by God, so the light of the world would be perceived by all nations. Listen to what Isaiah says in verses 1-6
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, young camels of Midian & Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold & frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.
The picture of light dawning on God’s Holy Dwelling Place includes men (and women) coming from the nations, bowing down before the Lord, and offering gifts.
7. Finally, even the killing of the infants was part of God’s plan. Oh, don’t misunderstand. God is not the cause of such evil. He is never tempted to do evil, nor does he ever do evil. However, that is to say that in his blameless holiness, he has not ordained evil to be done. Just think of the murder of Jesus on the cross, Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28 records that this was God’s plan and purpose. So, according to God’s inspired word, do we find that God blamelessly ordains the slaughter of infants, such that all that Herod does is according to the Script that was given to him.
To say it another way: Herod is not acting outside of God’s jurisdiction. Oh yes, he is breaking God’s commandment—thou shall not kill. But in another way, he is fulfilling the will of God. Like Satan in the book of Job, Herod only does what God permits him to do. He is on God’s leash, and cannot extend his hand any further than God allows. Like the lying spirit in 1 Kings 22, the one that God sent out to deceive Ahab, king of Israel—God does not lie, but apparently he does send out lying spirits. In the same way, Herod does what is in his nature to do—to deceive, manipulate, and kill.
Still unsure? Consider the fact that Matthew shows us that Herod’s fanatical attack on the children in Bethlehem actually fulfills Scripture, and thus at the same time that Herod is breaking God’s will, he is in another sense fulfilling God’s unfailing Word. Matthew 2:16-18 records,
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
In the end, the fulfillment of this prophecy shows how dark the period was. Israel’s sin brought God’s judgment, and thus they lived in gloomy darkness. Yet, in his covenant love, he had not abandoned his elect people. Rather, he was quietly working behind the scenes to bring his Son into the world. The birth narrative of Jesus shows us this, and as we will see in our next installment how God’s light shines brightest when it is contrasted with the darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss