by Bill Nugent
The Roman General Pompey invaded Judea and sacked Jerusalem in 63 BC. He turned Judea into a client state of Rome. As a client state, Judea had some privileges of local control and rule by native kings. The Romans installed Hyrcanus as ethnarch (Greek for ruler of a nation) to wield power for Rome and to collect taxes.
Hyrcanus was a weak ruler and this left an opening for Antipater, an Idumean, to rise to power. When Julius Caesar entered Judea in 47 BC during the Roman Civil War, he appointed Antipater to the office of Epitropos (regent). Antipater attained enough power to appoint his sons as governors over parts of the region. A new crisis erupted when Antipater was poisoned in 43 BC and the Parthians invaded from the east in 40 BC.
Herod, a son of Antipater, went to Rome, persuaded the Senate to give him the title of king and he returned in 39 BC at the head of a small army. Herod drove the Parthians out, solidified his hold on power and embarked on extravagant building projects including palaces, a seaport at Ceasarea and a huge retaining wall around the temple mount at Jerusalem. Part of the retaining wall that remains today is the western wall (formerly called the “Wailing Wall”) where people go to pray in Jerusalem.
Herod, who was Idumean and not ethnically Jewish, oppressed the people with a loathsome burden of taxation to finance his construction projects and pay tribute to Rome. The Roman occupation troops also brutalized the people and were supported by the exorbitant taxes. Anyone who resisted was tortured to death in public by crucifixion. Herod died in 4 BC and would go down in history as “Herod the Great.” After Herod’s death the situation for the Jews deteriorated further. Judea, Galilee and surrounding lands became a patchwork of small districts misruled by Herod’s incompetent sons. Rome soon made Judea a province governed by a Roman prefect, the most famous of whom would be Pontius Pilate who ruled from 26 to 36 AD.
Think of what it was like for the average Jewish person at that time. The Jews looked back on a glorious history of suffering under foreign oppressors and breaking free at great cost. The people of Israel had returned from Babylonian exile centuries earlier. They rebuilt the temple during troubled times. They threw off the yoke of Greek oppression during the time of the Maccabees. Now they found themselves oppressed into poverty and servitude by Rome. Historians tell us that the Jews were waiting for the arrival of the Messiah and believed they were living in the general time period of His coming. Several manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the community of the Essenes at Qumran were expecting the coming of a warrior Messiah.
Finally, the long awaited Messiah, a humble man from Nazareth named Jesus, came and worked miraculous wonders and taught the people. However, one of His most famous sermons, which He was about to give on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee, was not what they wanted to hear. It can be said, from their perspective, that the Sermon on the Mount was the most shocking and disappointing sermon ever given.
You can imagine the hope and wonder when word spread around the villages of Galilee that a great prophet had risen among them. People who had seen the miracle working power of Jesus of Nazareth wondered if He would be the great messianic deliverer who would raise an army and throw off the Roman yoke.
The people left their shops and fields, each one packed a small food supply and bedroll and hiked out into the countryside to find this wonderful teacher and leader. They found Him near the Sea of Galilee on a hillside with his disciples. The hillside formed a kind of natural amphitheater so his voice could be heard far off. He gathered His disciples around Him and the villagers behind them. He sat down to teach. In that time and culture when a rabbi sat down to teach it was serious business and the disciples and others stood at rapt attention.
Surely they expected this teacher, this rabbi from Nazareth, to recount the sins of the Romans and give a litany of their acts of oppression. They expected Him to extol the virtues of Israel who rebuilt, cleansed and refurbished the temple and who walked so meticulously in the law of Moses that they even tithed garden herbs such as mint, dill and cummin.
You can imagine their surprise, I guess shock would be a better word, when they heard Him speak not against Roman oppression but rather against the oppression of sin in their own hearts. The Israelites, like most people, had a very superficial understanding of what it meant to be righteous and keep God’s law.
They thought that they kept the Ten Commandments if they didn’t murder anybody or commit the outward act of adultery. Jesus taught that sin is committed in the heart. In His sermon he dealt with the heart because it is in the thoughts and intents of the heart that sin is birthed. If you look on a woman to lust after her it is the sin of adultery. If you are angry with your brother, you are holding a grudge against him and a grudge is unforgiveness. Unforgiveness is a mild form of murder and that breaks the sixth commandment.
It takes a lot of persuasion to convince people that they are sinners in need of a Savior. Jesus came to die for our sins but He first had to teach the people that they were sinners in need of forgiveness. Soon He would suffer and die on the cross on our behalf. He would take upon Himself the penalty that was due to us because of our sins. The atoning work of Christ was prophesied in the 53rd chapter of the Old Testament book of Isaiah and in other prophetic passages of the Old Testament.
One evangelist has said that if he had only one hour with a person, 55 minutes of that hour would be spent convincing the person that he or she is a sinner in danger of the judgement of God. Only five minutes would be needed to explain how to receive Christ and be saved.
Jesus the Messiah had come. He had opened the eyes of the blind and even gave sight to a man who had been born blind. He cleansed lepers and freed them from that awful disease. He healed the deaf and mute. He healed paralytics and those crippled with palsy. This is in fulfillment of prophecies, such as in Isaiah 29:18-19, that were written in the Old Testament centuries before Christ was born. The miraculous healings and other aspects of the life of Christ fulfilled the messianic prophecies and showed His credentials as Messiah.
The Jewish nation for the most part did not accept Jesus as Messiah when He came because they were looking for political deliverance from the Romans. They expected the Messiah to rail against the Romans and not to lecture them about their sins. However, the bondage to sin was far more urgent than their bondage to the Romans.
How about you? If you were there would you have humbly accepted Jesus’s teaching about the preponderance of sin in your heart? Or would you have asserted your own self-righteousness and demanded immediate action against the Romans? The choice is yours. Pray and ask Jesus to come into your heart today!