Times and seasons — we recognize them by the change in weather, foliage, the movement of celestial bodies, etc. Yet sometimes we take a while to adjust to seasonal changes. When winter comes I often catch my children going off to school without warm enough clothing! Jesus scolded religious leaders of his day for not discerning what was going on in the historical climate in their time:
"You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times." (Matthew 16:3)
Others, however, eagerly expected the coming of the Messiah at any moment. Their zeal was not without basis, as we will see below. The great anticipation for the coming of Messiah that many had at that time can be seen in the question put to Jesus one Hanukkah as he walked in the Temple area:
It was the feast of the Hanukkah at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." (John 10:22-24).
Why heightened anticipation at that season and at that location? The answer becomes very clear when we realize the larger and also more immediate historical and cultural settings. Because it was Hanukkah, and because it was the Temple area, the thoughts of the Judeans naturally turned toward the Messianic promises given to Israel.
Jewish Messianic expectation was founded upon the promises of the prophets. Many passages could be cited, but one of the clearest indications of when the Messiah would come was found in the prophet Daniel. No, I'm not referring to the famous "70 weeks" which is often discussed. Perhaps at some future time we'll take on that subject in these pages, but it is another passage in Daniel I have in mind:
...you [Nebuchadnezzar] are the head of gold. After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things; and like iron which crushes, it shall break and crush all these....And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure (Daniel 2:38-45)
The King of Babylon had a disturbing dream that none of his court astrologers could interpret. He called upon Daniel to explain the meaning of a multi-part statue and its destruction by a stone not cut by human hands. The stone became a great mountain that filled the earth. Daniel explained that the four parts of the statue represented four human empires to come, beginning with Babylon. We now know that the three following Babylon were Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Four empires were all part of the same statue because they represent human empires opposed to God's people Israel. During the Roman Empire, Daniel predicted, God would set up His kingdom, represented by the mountain growing from a rock not hewn by human hands. That is to say, it would be a kingdom not accomplished by man or man's devising. Perhaps this is an allusion to a passage from Exodus:
And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it. (Exodus 20:25)
Like the altar stones, God's chosen stone would be holy and not be the result of man's enterprise. The rock would smite the idol of the kingdom of man. The holy stone would grow into a holy stone-mountain, symbolizing God's triumphant kingdom.
Notice that the head of gold represented both Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian kingdom. It is reasonable to assume this is also true of God's kingdom. The foundation stone for the kingdom is God's Messiah. He was not chosen according to man's reckoning, but according to God's holy and inscrutable purpose, like his ancestor. David was the youngest son of Jesse, a mere shepherd boy. Saul, the man the people had first wanted, was a man of stature. (I suspect Saul would have been a very popular politician even in our own day!) God, who is not dependent upon man to establish his kingdom, chose young David rather than Saul. Likewise, God's Messiah is not the sort of King the people were looking for. They eventually followed Bar Kochba in a military revolt against Rome, but lost.
The rabbis knew of the promise in the second chapter of Daniel and understood it to mean that Messiah must come during the Roman empire. Numerous passages from the Talmud, Midrash (rabbinic commentary), and Zohar (rabbinic mysticism) refer to the Messiah's triumph over Rome. Sometimes they cryptically alluded to Rome as "Edom" or "the wicked kingdom," so as to not bring the wrath of the Roman government upon themselves. One passage, after commenting on the dominion of the empires of Persia and Greece over Israel, mentions Rome and adds:
...the world is to exist six thousand years; the first two thousand years are to be void; the next two thousand years are the period of the Torah, and the following two thousand years are the period of the Messiah. Though our many iniquities all these years have been lost [and the Messiah is not yet]. (Babylonian Talmud - Mas. Avodah Zarah 8b-9a and Sanhedrin 97a-b).
How interesting! The rabbis realized the time for the coming of the Messiah was already overdue at the time of their writing! As they struggled to account for that they felt the only explanation they could come up with for the delay was that Israel had sinned, so the promises of God were on hold. But perhaps they should have stopped to think that their conceptions of the promised king and the promised kingdom were grossly inadequate. This brings us back to John 10:22 cited above. At Hanukkah the people celebrated the military uprising during the time of the Maccabees — an uprising that defeated pagan oppression and dominion over Israel. They were looking for a Messiah who would lead a similar uprising against Rome. But God had a larger purpose in mind. As Rabbi Saul of Tarsus wrote:
But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)
The rabbis were right about the time frame. Messiah had to come during the time of the Roman Empire. Daniel had indeed foretold it. But no explanation is needed for a delay. There was no delay. The realization of the promise was simply of a different nature than what they expected. The kingdom of God was more spiritual, more eternal, and more universal than they were able to comprehend.
The true Light of the World came and dwelt with his people. He came to die for our sins and to conquer death so that we can receive the adoption as sons. He came that all the peoples of the earth might experience freedom from spiritual oppression and liberation from the dominion of sin and death. As Daniel prophesied, Rome indeed fell to the power of the gospel, in spite of Roman persecution. And nothing can stop the gospel going forward today.
The time of salvation is now. Jesus came in the fullness of time. Let us rejoice at this season that the Royal Son, King Messiah, came and established his kingdom. Let us be encouraged that millions around the world are coming to faith, embracing his rule, and being transformed from the dominion of darkness and death to the dominion of life and light. Messiah was born of a virgin, not born through natural human means (Isaiah 7:14). He was rejected by religious leaders, but chosen by God (Psalm 118:22-24) His salvation comes solely from God, without human effort or human merit. How fitting his kingdom should be symbolized by a rock not hewn by human hands that grows into a mighty mountain that fills the earth!
Jesus is the sure foundation of the Kingdom of God. His Empire, the mountain of Daniel's vision, is destined to fill the whole earth and endure forever, just as Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream had promised.
Messiah came in the fullness of time. He inaugurated the final era of human history, the "latter days" spoken of by Hebrew prophets (Hebrews 1:1). He brought this earth's final age when salvation is proclaimed to all nations.
Messiah's kingdom, that mountain growing from the uncut stone, is going forward. No one can stop it. Let us proclaim to Jew and Gentile alike that the hopes of the prophets are realized through the one born during the Roman Empire in Bethlehem of Judea (Micah 5:2).