I was asked to contribute this article for the January 2014 (“Between the Testaments”) issue of Pressing On, an e-magazine for growing Christians. If you haven’t already subscribed, you’re missing out on some great monthly content.
The last book of the Old Testament nears its conclusion with an admonition to “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal 4:4). God is the speaker, and he closes the book (and the rest of the Old Testament) by pointing his people to the future.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Mal 4:5-6)
With those words, God ushers in an era of more than 400 years’ worth of revelatory silence. While you and I can flip a page or two in our Bibles and effortlessly migrate from Malachi to Matthew, that white page with nothing printed on it but “THE NEW TESTAMENT” represents the passing of more than four centuries of human history. Did anything happen between Malachi and Matthew that can enhance our grasp of God’s providential work and deepen our understanding of the New Testament?
This period of history, as it relates to the descendants of Abraham, is easily broken down into four great eras: the Persian Empire (539-332 BC), the Grecian Empire (332-167 BC), a period of Jewish independence (167-63 BC), and the rise of the Roman Empire (63 BC-70 AD).
The Persian Empire (539-332 BC)
In Daniel 2, God compared Babylon to the golden head of a great statue, but he also clearly communicated that the Babylonian Empire would not last forever. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great (Isa 44:28) conquered Babylon and declared himself “king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the world.” In the first year of his reign, “that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all the kingdom… ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up’” (2 Chr 36:22-23). So begins the work of Ezra and, eventually, Nehemiah.
By 525 BC, nearly all the known world was under Persian control. King Darius (Ezra 6:1) attempted to bring Greece under the umbrella of the Persian Empire by means of a military showdown. Surprisingly, he suffered a humiliating defeat at Marathon in 490 BC. This was no small development. It served as a turning point in Greece’s growth to becoming the Persian’s strongest opponent.
The Grecian Empire (332-167 BC)
During the reign of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC, Dan 8:20-22; 11:3), the Greeks eventually conquered all of the territory once held by the mighty Persians. The influence they came to assert over the world had seismic impact on human history. Their language became the dominant language of the world, facilitating a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (commonly referred to as the Septuagint). From that point forward, not only could Greek-speaking Jews easily digest the Old Testament, but all Greek-speaking people could readily access the hundreds of prophecies the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had made concerning the coming Messiah. The New Testament would eventually be written in Greek, making it broadly understandable throughout the world of that era. The Hellenistic Age of Grecian culture and influence flourished from the time of Alexander the Great to the rise of Roman rule around 30 BC.
A Period of Jewish Independence (167-63 BC)
Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Greek king of the later Seleucid Empire from 175-164 BC and a passionate proponent of Hellenistic rule and philosophy. In an effort to exercise influence over the Jews, he appointed Menelaus as high priest in Jerusalem. Menelaus was publicly accused on more than one occasion of robbing the Jewish Temple. He was an outspoken advocate of “Hellenizing” Hebrew worship.
In 168 BC, Antiochus was leading a military campaign in Egypt. Rumor reached Jerusalem that he had been killed in battle. A former high priest named Jason mustered a force of 1,000 soldiers and led a surprise attack against the Hellenists in Jerusalem. But Antiochus was not dead.
Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery. (2 Maccabees 5:11-14)
To emphasize his complete dominance, Antiochus had an image of Zeus erected in the Temple, swine were sacrificed on the altar of burnt offering, the reading of Hebrew Scripture was forbidden, Sabbath observance was banned, and the rite of circumcision was outlawed.
In 167 BC, in the darkest of these days, a representative of Antiochus came to the Jewish town of Modi’in, built an altar to Zeus, and commanded the people to offer sacrifice. Mattathias, an aged Hebrew priest, publicly refused to submit. When a young fellow priest stepped forward to obey the decree, Mattathias rushed forward and killed the young man along with Antiochus’ emissary. When an edict was issued for his arrest, Mattathias fled deep into the wilderness of Judea with his five sons—John, Simon, Judas, Eleazer, and Jonathan, calling upon all faithful Jews everywhere to rebel. A great many answered the call, forming what came to be known as the Maccabean Revolt. Judas Maccabeus, third son of Mattathias, grew to be one of the greatest military commanders in all of Jewish history. His courageous leadership inspired a nation. The Syrian forces eventually withdrew, the Jewish people were liberated, and the Temple was purified—an event still commemorated by Jews as Hanukkah.
The earliest seeds of the most famous Jewish sects in the era of the New Testament were sown during this struggle for independence. The “pious men” who joined the Maccabean Revolt were known as the Hasidim. From within the Hasidim, the parties of the Pharisees (“separatists”), the Sadducees (“the right” or “just ones”), and the Essenes (Hellenized form of Hasidim, “pious ones”) rose to prominence. The Zealots (“zealous on behalf of God”) eventually grew to be an influential political movement known for employing whatever deception, force, or violence they found necessary to maintain Jewish freedom. Synagogues (“houses of prayer”), which are regularly mentioned in the New Testament, came to be common throughout the land during this period.
The Rise of the Roman Empire (63 BC-70 AD)
The fourth great empire of Daniel’s vision (2:40), “strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things,” was Rome. Caesar Augustus ruled over much of the known world from 31 BC-14 AD. Luke documents the reason Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born—“a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). It was “in the days of [these] kings” that “the God of heaven [would] set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” (Dan 2:44).
Throughout Old Testament history, the Law of Moses served as a “guardian” (Gal 3:24). After providing the Law and the Prophets, God was silent for more than 400 years—silent, but not idle. He continued to reign as “the Most High,” ruling over the kingdoms of men and giving them to whom he willed (Dan 4:17) in order to accomplish his ultimate purpose. Finally, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).
Matthew begins to tell that story with these words (1:1):
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.