By Gordon Franz
I would like to draw back the curtains on the Drama of World Redemption and take a peek at what was going on behind the scenes during the second half of the First Century BC. I will also consider the events leading up to the birth of the Lord Jesus and the announcement of that birth by the angels to the shepherds in the fields surrounding Bethlehem.
This may seem like a daunting task; and I am not presuming that I have all the answers. I am like the Monday morning quarterback that analyzes the Sunday afternoon football game with 20-20 hindsight pointing out the team’s mistakes, analyzing why they lost the game, and showing how they could have won.
As an archaeologist, historian and a student of the Scriptures, I will bring some of the “secular” and “sacred” sources together to see the announcement of the birth of the Lord Jesus by the angels in the greater context of world redemption and the “conflict of the ages,” the war between God and Satan. For a good Biblical overview of the conflict between God and Satan, see Renald E. Showers’s, What on Earth is God Doing? Satan’s Conflict with God (1973).
An Overview of the Conflict of the Ages
This drama, or conflict, actually began in the Garden of Eden. Eve, our first mother, was deceived by Satan who was disguised as a serpent. She fell into transgression and disobeyed the Word of God (I Tim. 2:13, 14). God cursed the serpent and said to him: ” And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen. 3:13). This was the first prophecy at the beginning of the long war between God and Satan.
Years later, God made an unconditional covenant with Abraham where He promised a land to Abraham and his descendents (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:4-8). After God tested Abraham to see if he would offer his “son, [his] only son Isaac,” Abraham passed this test and God reconfirmed the covenant with Abraham by saying: ” By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendents as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashores; and your descendents shall possess the gates of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:16-18).
The Apostle Paul provided an inspired commentary on this verse when he wrote to the church in Galatia: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
The promised Seed would come through Abraham, Isaac (Gen. 17:19; 26:1-5), Jacob (Gen. 28:10-15), Judah (Gen. 49:10), and David (Ruth 4:17-22). Nathan the prophet set forth the unconditional Davidic covenant in II Sam. 7, which promised that a descendent of David would sit upon the throne of David forever (7:4-17).
The kings of Judah were sometimes not on their best behavior. At one point, Satan thought he won a victory when he saw Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah or Coniah) sinning grossly. God was so displeased with Jehoiachin that Jeremiah records this prophecy: ” Is this man Coniah a despised, broken idol – a vessel in which is no pleasure? Why are they cast out, he and his descendents, and cast into a land which they do not know? O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the LORD: ‘Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days; for none of his descendents will prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah'” (Jer. 22:28-30). Satan thought he had won a victory in the war with God, now there could be no Messiah to fulfill the Davidic covenant!
Satan, however, was in for a big surprise. When the Lord Jesus was born, He could claim a legal right to the throne of David through His adoptive father Joseph. Joseph was related to David through David’s son Solomon, but there was still the problem of the curse against Jehoiachin (Matt. 1:1-17). The seeming victory of Satan was turned to defeat when he found out that the blood line of the Messiah came through his mother Mary, who was also related to David by another one of David’s son, Nathan (Luke 3:23-38). The Lord Jesus had a legal, as well as a blood claim, to the throne of David. Thus, He will be able to fulfill the Davidic covenant. One day in the future, He shall rule upon the throne of David from Jerusalem (Luke 1:30-33).
Satan also knew the prophecies of Daniel chapter 9, verses 24-27, and knew it was about time for the Messiah to come to earth. His thinking was: “I will put one of my puppets on the throne of an empire that will rule the world and bring peace and prosperity. And I will have some of my messengers herald him as a savior. Perhaps the people of the world will fall for my messiah and his “heaven on earth” and forget about God’s Savior who will rule in Jerusalem.” Satan began to put him plan into motion.
Octavian / Caesar Augustus
On September 23, 63 BC (on the Julian calendar), Gaius Octavian was born in Rome just before sunrise. Apparently his father, Senator Octavius, was present at the birth of Octavian because he was late for work in the Roman Senate. When he arrived at the Senate building, he announced the birth of his son. A senator who heard the announcement, Nigidius Figulus, was also an astrologer, so he inquired as to the time of the birth. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, when he found out, he “declared that the ruler of the world had been born” ( Deified Augustus I: 94: 5; LCL 1: 267). Another Roman historian named Dio Cassius, records that Nigidius cried out, “You have begotten a master over us!” ( Roman History 45: 1: 3-5; LCL 4: 409).
A numismatic scholar was able to cast Augustus’ horoscope and demonstrate from the ancient sources that the astrological charts “predicted” Augustus rule (Molnar 1994a: 6-15). He comments: “I believe that Augustus was certain that he had an ironclad astral license for imperial rule. I also suspect that he probably took advantage of this starry legacy by exploiting the superstition of his friends and foes. Friendly believers of astral fatalism would have been inclined to support him in achieving his ‘inevitable’ destiny, whereas his adversaries may have been reluctant to fight fate: a powerful formula for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although it is pure conjecture, I cannot help but wonder how even Julius Caesar may have been influenced to adopt this distant nephew who had a wondrous horoscope claiming omnipotence and world rule” (1994a: 6, 7).
Firmicus Maternus, an astrological writer in the 4th century AD, wrote concerning Augustus’ horoscope, “[It] will make emperors whose rule extends throughout the whole world and whose power is so great that it approaches that of the gods” (Molnar 1994a: 12).
Divination and astrology were widespread in the Roman world at this time. Satan used astrology, something that the Word of God condemns and forbids (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:9-24; Isa. 47:13-14), to set up his puppet to be the ruler of the world.
Suetonius mentioned that he read an account of the conception of Octavian in a book called Theologumena (“Discourse about the gods”) by Asclepias of Mendes. According to the story, Attia was impregnated by a serpent in the temple of Apollo. After this happened, a discoloration on her body was seen in the form of a serpent. Ten months later, Octavian was born and he was regarded as the son of the god Apollo ( Deified Augustus 94:4; LCL 1: 265, 267). Dio Cassius also relates the same story ( Roman History 45: 2, 3; LCL 4:407-409). There were coins minted by Augustus with the inscription on it, “son of god.” While he was the adopted son of the deified Julius Caesar, he was also the son of the god Apollo.
When Octavian was 19 years old, his uncle, Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate building on the Ides of March, 44 BC (something else the astrological charts predicted. See Molnar 1994b: 6-10). The two leading conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, fled to the east and raised an army to retake Rome and return it to a Republic and not the dictatorship that Julius Caesar had established. Two and a half years later (October 42 BC), an exhausted and undermanned army led by Octavian and Mark Antony met the armies of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. As fate would have it, the armies of Brutus and Cassius were defeated and the two men committed suicide.
In 40 BC Virgil (70-19 BC), a prophet of Satan, masquerading as a world renowned poet, wrote a poem called the “Fourth Eclogue” about a virgin and a divine child who will end the civil wars in the Roman world and bring peace and prosperity to the world. It would be a paradise on earth. Thus began the “golden age” of Rome. Peace seemed to prevail after the death of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII in Egypt in 30 BC when Octavian became the sole ruler of the Roman world.
In January 27 BC, Octavian was given the title Augustus which means one who is worthy of honor and worship, like a god. The “secular Games” were celebrated in 17 BC in honor of Augustus’ rule of peace and prosperity. Coins were minted commemorating his rule. Some even had inscriptions on them that called Augustus the “son of god.” In 13 BC an altar of peace was dedicated in Rome. Also, the doors of the Temple of Janus, the god of war, were closed because Rome was not a war with anybody because Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, had prevailed.
It was in this context, on May 14, 6 BC, the real Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus was born. According to one of the early Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160-215 AD), the date given on the Egyptian calendar for the birth of Jesus was Pachom 25 ( Stromata 1:21; 1994:333b). On the Gregorian calendar, this date is May 14th, 6 BC (Faulstich 1989: 3-14). Apparently Clement had access to records that we do not have today and I have no reason to doubt this date.
The Angelic Announcement – 2:8-15
Dr. Luke links the birth of the Lord Jesus with the reign of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). Unbeknownst to Caesar Augustus, the decree that he made for the world to be registered, was used by God to fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2, ” But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”
Mary, pregnant with Jesus, had returned to Nazareth. This decree brought her and Joseph from the village of Nazareth in Lower Galilee to Bethlehem in the Hill Country of Judah. God has a sense of humor as He used Satan’s puppet, Caesar Augustus, to bring about the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy. Augustus was clueless as to what was going on behind the scenes in the “conflict of the ages.”
At the birth of Octavian there were some impressive natal signs in the stars as far as the astrologers were concerned. But at the birth of the Lord Jesus, God does a “one-upman” on Satan and his prognosticators. The “glory of the Lord” shone around the shepherds. This glory of the Lord is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Shechinah Glory. This bright manifestation of God had resided in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and also in Solomon’s Temple. But the Glory of the LORD departed from that temple right before the Babylonian’s destroyed Jerusalem in 587/6 BC (Ezek. 8-11).
When a remnant of Judeans returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel after the Babylonian captivity the Temple was rebuilt. We know there were five things that were in Solomon’s Temple that were not in the Second Temple. They were: (1) The Ark of the Covenant which included the cover and the Cherubim, (2) the fire on the altar (cf. Lev. 1:7), (3) the Shechinah Glory (4) the Holy Spirit [of Prophecy], and (5) the Urim-we-Thummim (BT Yoma 21b; Moed 3: 94). The Glory of the Lord was missing from the Second Temple.
The Shechinah Glory had not been seen for over 580 years. It showed up on the night of the birth of the Lord Jesus and then disappeared again. It will not be seen on earth again until after the seven year period of Tribulation and Jesus’ establishment of His Kingdom in Jerusalem and the building of the Millennial Temple (Ezek. 43:1-5). Ezekiel ends his book with the phrase, “The LORD is There.” He says that because the Shechinah Glory has returned to the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
An Angel of the LORD also appeared when Jesus was born and said to the shepherds near Bethlehem: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
Caesar Augustus had a natal sign in the stars at his birth, but the sign the angel gave to the shepherds for the location of the Messiah was that they would find him wrapped in swaddling cloth, lying in a manger! Hardly the sign one would expect for the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who would one day rule the world.
There was an interesting Greek inscription found in Priene in western Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Part of this lengthy 84 line inscription said: “Since the Providence which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue [divine power] that he might benefit mankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendents, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [“epiphany,” often used of Hellenistic rulers] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of the good tidings [gospel] that came by reason of him” (Boring, Berger, and Colpe 1995: para. 225). The Greek transcript of the whole inscription can be found in Dittenberger 1905:48-60; Inscription 458. The original is on display in the Berlin Museum and consists of two blocks of different types of stone. The upper block is blue limestone, while the lower one is white marble (Sherk 1969:329; For photographs, see Deissmann 1995; Figs. 70 and 71, between pages 366 and 367).
This inscription was executed in 9 BC after “Paullus Fabius Maximus, proconsul of Asia, wrote to the provincial assembly urging the council to adopt the natal day of Augustus as the beginning of the official year in the province, and to change from the lunar to the solar reckoning of the Julian calendar. The assembly adopted the recommendation enthusiastically as a means of conferring honor upon the deified emperor. Copies of the decree were ordered to be engraved and set up in different cities” (Abbott and Johnson 1968: 331). Fragments of this inscription have also been found in Apamea (Latin fragments), Dorylaeum, Eumenia and Maeonia.
My sanctified imagination chuckles at the thought of this Angel of the Lord watching the workmen at Priene chisel this inscription in the white marble and saying to himself: “You just wait! Three more years and the real epiphany will take place and good tidings will be given because Jesus will be born. He will be the true Savior of the World and also the Messiah and Lord, not Caesar Augustus!”
After the shepherds were instructed as to where to find the Messiah, a multitude of the heavenly host appeared praising God and saying, ” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14). The peace that the angels spoke about was not the Pax Romana, but a peace that only God could give.
Today we hear much about the “separation of church and state” in the news, but believe it or not, this so-called separation is not found in the Constitution! The angelic announcement demonstrates that God is blatantly involved in the political affairs of the Roman Empire. These statements by the angels are a polemic against Caesar Augustus, and his foreign policies. Jesus is LORD and one day He will rule the world with justice and righteousness and only then will true peace prevail.
Almost 12 years after the death of Caesar Augustus in AD 14, the Lord Jesus identified with His Covenant People, Israel, when He went to the Jordan River and was immersed into the water by John the Baptizer (Luke 3:21, 22). [Remember this: John was not a Baptist, he was a Jew!]
The Spirit of God led the Lord Jesus into the Wilderness in order for Him to be tested (Luke 4:1). Satan picked up a rock and said: ” If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 3:3). Here is a hint at what Caesar Augustus did for the people of Rome. He gave them bread and games. His policy was to feed and entertain the people so that they would like him. Jesus rebuked Satan by saying: ” It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 3:4). Jesus points out to Satan that there is more to life than just food and entertainment. One must be obedient to the Word of God.
When Jesus delivered His “Sermon on the Mount” He taught His disciples to pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). He then goes on to give a commentary on what we commonly call the “Lord’s prayer” (Matt. 6:14-7:6). His commentary on the daily bread concept is found in Matt. 6:25-34. Jesus said not to be anxious, like the Gentiles, about what they are going to eat, drink or wear, but if they would seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all these things (food, clothing and drink) will be added to them (Matt. 6:31-33). For the believer in the Lord Jesus, we should be seeking God in our daily life and living for Him.
Jesus is again tested by Satan when He is taken to a high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5). Satan again tempts Jesus by saying, ” All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if you will worship before me, all will be Yours” (Luke 4:6, 7). Was Satan discarding one puppet and trying to enlist another? Satan had given Caesar Augustus an empire that stretched from Britain, all around the Mediterranean Sea, and he even received tribute as far away as India. Jesus refused to play Satan’s game and made the statement: ” Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve'” (Luke 4:8). Satan was offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in order to get Him to avoid the Cross. Jesus was steadfast. He knew He had to go to the Cross and die and pay for all the sins of all the world. He had to defeat Satan and conquer death before He could claim the throne of David and rule triumphantly from Jerusalem.
Later in Jesus’ ministry He was in the region of Caesarea Philippi at the base of Mount Hermon in the northern part of Israel. It was in this region that Herod the Great built a temple dedicated to the worship of Caesar Augustus after Caesar had visit the area in 20 BC ( Antiquities 15: 354, 363, 364; LCL 8: 171, 175, 177). Jesus asked His disciples: “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:16).
The Lord Jesus acknowledged that Peter got the answer correct when He said, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:17, 18). At this point, Jesus begins to plainly tell His disciples that He would be going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, but He would be raised from the dead three days later (Matt. 16:21). Peter rebuked the Lord Jesus because he wanted to rule and reign with Christ. Jesus turned the tables on Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:23).
Augustus had said before he died that he hoped that he had laid the foundation for a kingdom that would last immovably. At Caesarea Philippi, in the shadows of the Augustan temple, Jesus declared, ” Upon this Rock, I will build My Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Catch the irony of the historical contrasts. Caesar Augustus is dead and his ashes are in an urn buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus died on a cruel cross, but was raised from the dead from a tomb in Jerusalem and has ascended into Heaven where He is seated at the right hand of the Father. Caesar Augustus’ great empire was in total shambles only a few years after his death and it no longer exists today. On the other hand, the Church of Jesus Christ continued and will continue to be built until He returns to take His Church home to be with Himself (John 14:1-6; I Thess. 4:13-18).
A discerning First-century AD Roman philosopher once stated: “Caesar can bring peace to the world; both on land and sea, but he can not bring peace to the hearts of men and women.” I am sure the Apostle Paul was aware of that statement when he penned the words to the church in Rome: ” Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1, 2). The word justified is a legal term for the act of God whereby He declares a sinner righteous. When a person places their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and Him alone, God declares that person righteous. Because that person is righteous, they have peace with God, something Augustus could not provide for the people of the Roman Empire.
Caesar Augustus was a nice guy and very generous with his money (Suetonius, Deified Augustus 41; LCL 1: 189), helping people out whenever and wherever he could, but he was still a sinner and could not pay for his own sins, let alone the sins of the world. The Apostle Peter, writing from Rome, put it eloquently, yet simply: ” knowing that [we] were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:18, 19). Only the Lord Jesus Christ, God manifest in human flesh, could pay the debt that each of us owed a Holy God. On the Cross He cried, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). The Greek word, tetelestai, is an economic term for a transaction that has been paid in full. There is nothing we have to do, nor is there anything we can do, to pay for our salvation. It has already been paid for us by the Lord Jesus.
To the church at Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony and the place where Octavian (later to be called Caesar Augustus) and Mark Anthony defeated Brutus and Cassius, Paul wrote about the ” Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” and he also wrote about the ” God of peace” (Phil. 4:7, 9); Something and some One which Caesar Augustus knew nothing about.
How do we apply these words of the angels to our lives today? The shepherds responded by going to Bethlehem to see the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloth lying in a manger. These shepherds were no ordinary shepherds. According to the rabbinic sources, they were the ones who raised the lambs and sheep for the Temple sacrifices. They knew of the many lambs sacrificed in the Temple. They also knew that the blood of the lambs only atoned for, or covered the sins of, the nation, but the blood of these lambs never took away the sin. They knew better than most people the limitation of the blood of the lambs they raised for the Temple. Because of this limitation, they were looking forward to the day when the Lord would provide the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world forever (John 1:29). By faith, they understood that the baby Jesus (YHWH is salvation) would be their Savior and He would not only atone for sin, but would take their sins completely away forever.
After seeing Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they returned to their sheepfolds ” glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them” (Luke 2:20). From Joseph, they would have heard that Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). How much these shepherds knew of the death of Christ, we are not told. But in a bit of irony, they had seen the Lamb of God who would put them out of business some 35 years later. When the Lord Jesus died on Calvary’s cross He paid for sin, once and for all, and there was no more need for the sacrifices in the Temple (Heb. 9:26-10:18). Have you accepted the good tidings that the angels spoke about? Have you trusted the Savior that they proclaimed? Or do you trust in one of Satan’s pseudo-messiahs? Are we looking for “heaven on earth” or are you searching for a happy life with one of Satan’s gimmicks?
As the Apostle Peter says, ” We have a more sure word of prophecy” (II Pet. 1:19; cf. Isa. 8:19, 20). We do not need to read our daily horoscope in the newspaper, nor call 1-800-PSYCHIC, or have our palms read, or consult the dead at a séance in order to find out the future or to have a fulfilling life. All these things are condemned by the Scriptures, and forbidden for believers to be engaged in. In order to find fulfillment in our life and to discern God’s will for our life, we need to read the Word of God and understand the principles laid down in the Word for our lives and use these to determine what God’s will is for our individual lives. It is also the Word of God that tells us what the future will be for the Church, Israel and an unbelieving world. It also answers the question: Who will rule the earth? It will not be Caesar Augustus, or any other puppet in Satan’s closet, but it will be the Lord Jesus Christ who will rule for a thousand years on the throne of David in Jerusalem. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
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