Christianity continues to be the largest religion in the world with 2.2 billion professing believers, according to the CIA world fact book. Though its many branches inhabit vast expanses of race and social groups stretching from urban mega-churches to rain forest villages, most Christians believe this same thing: Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and therefore the savior of the world called Christ (Christos, meaning “anointed one” in Greek). He gave His own life in exchange for the sins of all humanity, granting us a brand new relationship with God, the great Father of all things. Everyone seems to know the message and you can’t go too far without spotting a dangling cross or Bible showing up in the strangest place. However, when one takes a step back and examines the circumstances surrounding the emergence of “the way”, as early disciples called it, you may find yourself wondering how Christianity succeeded at all.
Christmas time usually means a nativity play is somewhere telling the story of how wise men, called Magi, found baby Jesus. We know that a strange star burned in the sky, guiding them to the newborn savior. What many don’t realize is that these men were said to be from the east, literally “from the rising of the sun”, with translations of the word magi revealing them as astrologers of Babylonian/Persian origin. They were possibly followers of an ancient Iranian religion called Zoroastrianism, studying the stars to ascertain future events. This is very significant as Christianity began as a sect of the Jewish faith, which forbids these practices as well as consorting with those involved in them. Now, here we have the birth of the prophesied Jewish Messiah, One who an entire nation was waiting on to save them from Roman occupation, being announced to “ungodly”, foreign “magicians” rather than Jewish high priests and keepers of Judaic law.
All of this is compounded by the fact that this account appears in the gospel of Matthew, which was written primarily for a Jewish audience to help them see that Jesus fulfills prophecy as their Messiah. So if Christianity was only man-made and Matthew`s goal was to draw Jewish believers with his account of Jesus`s life, then he made a very serious mistake in creating this story that an intensely nationalistic persona like the Messiah would first be revealed to outsiders. It makes greater sense that it did happen and that rather than create a more ethnically and nationalist centered origin for Jesus, Matthew decided that the truth would reveal the glory and value of Jesus Christ to the entire world.
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked… (John 1:45-46)
Scholars believe that Nathaniel may have been referring to Nazareth’s small size or simply having a bad reputation, but the point is that nothing about Jesus met the superficial expectations of the ancient world for a savior of the earth. His beginnings were humble; born in a manger made for feeding animals, coming up in a then backwater village like Nazareth instead of a royal palace, laboring away in His adult years as a carpenter while brushing elbows with the common man, the sick, the lame. We now know from the Bible that God’s plan was to reach out and connect with all humanity in this way, but imagine that it’s the first century A.D. and all you knew of Jesus was that He was the son of Joseph and Mary from the neighborhood over. Then one day, He puts down His carpentry tools, comes down to the river to be baptized with sinners and suddenly begins to speak boldly that He is the Son of God come into the world to save it. Would you listen? Indeed, the Bible tells us that even His own brothers and sisters thought that He was out of His mind (Mark 3:20-21).
The Jews were expecting the Messiah to come in splendor and force to bring immediate change, similar to a later individual who claimed to be just what they needed. In 132 A.D., Simon bar Kokhba (died 135 A.D.) led the last of three revolts against Rome and established an independent Jewish state. Just a century after Jesus, the Jews enjoyed their own kingdom with Kokhba, who claimed to be their promised Messiah, ruling as nasi, or “prince”. Unfortunately, it was not to last and after 3 years the state was brutally crushed by Emperor Hadrian`s massive Roman army of six legions. In contrast, standing before Pontius Pilate bloody and flesh exposed by flogging, Jesus boldly declares to the Roman governor:
“…“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”” (John 18:36)
It`s clear that Christ was aware of the world`s alternate views of what a savior from above should be and how He should go about redeeming the world. Next time, we’ll go deeper into the touch of Christianity on the hearts of non-Jews and more of the hurdles it miraculously overcame. Have a blessed week!
1. World Religions – https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html – click on “people and society”, scroll down to “religion”
2. Simon bar Kokhba- http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/revolt1.html