What the Gospels Say: Chapter 6

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About Jesus Christ: Chapter 6

 

THE WRATH OF THE EMPIRE

 Today, we have many ideas and definitions of empires from movies and TV, politics, sports, business and more. For this reason alone, this Conversation requires some background. Since we have many kinds of empires to choose from, we will restrict ourselves to a kind of empire described in both Old and New Testaments. The picture will develop as you read along. You’ll find them to be real and not fiction like that often developed in movies and television.

The King’s Disturbing Dream

We begin our investigation with a great story from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. The king (Emperor) was King Nebuchadnezzar. He was an autocratic monarch—today he would be labeled a dictator. In other words, he ruled by decree: Whatever he said was law: Everything in his Empire was under his thumb. But he had no control over his dreams.

He was greatly troubled by a dream he had to which he found no explanation. It was bad enough he couldn’t explain the dream. To make it worse, he couldn’t remember what the dream was in the first place. During these times, dreams were considered important guides into the future. There are many examples in both Testaments of how dreams were often considered. (The following chapter will include several examples.) So the King’s wise men and astrologers were called in to tell him his dream and then interpret the dream as well. This story is recorded for us in the book of Daniel, chapter 2. Let’s look at a few verses from that chapter.

After all the experts had failed to reveal the king’s dream, Daniel requested to speak to the emperor. Daniel, a young Hebrew, had been captured in Jerusalem, brought to Babylon and trained in the kingdom’s culture and language. He was then brought into the King’s service. Now, he is standing before King Nebuchadnezzar:

“This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.” (2:36-38).

The king’s dream was about a huge statue standing on a plain. It’s head was of gold with the rest of the statue made of material declining in value. The kingdoms or empires were represented by gold, silver, bronze, iron and ending with feet and toes of part iron and part clay—a mixture of strength and weakness. Then Daniel concludes his interpretation by declaring:

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.” (2:45).

What was outlined in the dream were the “earthly” empires or kingdoms of human origin. Daniel describes another empire, which was out of this world. He pictured it to King Nebuchadnezzar like this:

“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.” (2:44, 45).

The stage is now set: Earthly kingdoms versus a God-sent kingdom.

Daniel’s Three Friends

Daniel had three friends or associates who were brought with him to Babylon from Judah. All three had been selected into the service of the empire under King Nebuchadnezzar. It seems likely that these three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, accompanied Daniel before the king. This is suggested by verse 36 (above) when Daniel states, “. . . now we will interpret it to the king.” Regardless of their presence at this time or not, these three were confederates of Daniel who undoubtedly were aware of the king’s dream. They also would have heard from Daniel of the coming, never-ending, kingdom of heaven, of which Daniel had spoken to the king.

At some point down the road, and after Daniel had been promoted to a high position in the king’s service, his three friends got into some trouble. Nebuchadnezzar had erected a giant statue of gold and ordered that all of his generals, counselors, leaders and advisors bow down in worship to the idol. Daniel’s three friends did not follow the king’s command. We pick up the story from Daniel, chapter 3:

“At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live forever! You have issued a decree, O king, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, and that who ever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.’ “Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.” The king demanded some answers from his trusted counselors. They replied to the king: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18).

The Empire Strikes Back

An angry King Nebuchadnezzar didn’t waste time or words or fuel to respond to the three who were challenging him in this public manner. Here is what we read from the account:

19 “Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.” (Daniel 3:19-23).

From every perspective, the three Hebrews had thrown the dice and lost. They had angered the Emperor by not obeying his command and had refused to worship the golden idol. So both politically and on religious grounds, they had given their antagonists the opportunity to get rid of the three. They would not escape. Even the soldiers who threw them into the fire were overcome by the flames, so what possible chance did they have? None, except that God was watching and decided to intervene. As the men fell into the flames, a shocked king saw what God had in mind for his three servants. Here is what he saw and how he reacted:

.  .  . 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.   .  .  . 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. (Daniel 3:24-27).

The Wrath of the Emperor

King Nebuchadnezzar’s original motivation to kill three of his top administrators for not bowing down to the gold image was to use them as an object lesson to all of his officials. He was saying, “No scheme or excuse to disobey even the most trivial of my commands will prevent anyone of you from being punished, even being burned alive.” If he had succeeded, the king would have tightened the immense power he already had. The public execution of the three Hebrews would have everyone’s attention. Who would dare challenge his authority again?

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had no idea how they could escape from the king’s edict, whether by deliverance or by death. But their desire to be true to their God was stronger than any outcome they could imagine. It is likely that as faithful Jews they were students of the Torah and of the Psalms. They would have heard and read about many dramatic deliverances out of extreme circumstances in times past with people like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph with his brothers; Moses and Joshua leaving Egypt and entering into the promised land.

Now it was their turn to show once again, the truth found in Psalm 76, where the Psalmist sings out, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise You; with the remainder of wrath You shall gird Yourself.” (Psalm 76:10, NKJV Bible).Yes, they had heroes they could recall; now they added their names to the list of those who could be followed without fear, to those who put their trust in God.

The decision by these three Hebrews to be true to God had been in evidence before this day of challenge with King Nebuchadnezzar. On their arrival in Babylon, they together with Daniel, determined to follow the dietary laws of the Torah. In that case, they were successful in their desire to obey God’s laws. In the book of Daniel, chapter 1, you can read their story. Those laws must have seemed small in comparison to what they had come through in the furnace.

The Empire Strikes in the New Testament

The Two Empires of Jesus’ Time

In first century Israel, two empires had separate, yet often cooperating spheres of influence: One from Rome and one from Jerusalem. Unless they crossed the line into political objectives, the Roman authority with its power coming from the Roman Senate and the Emperor usually had little interest in religious squabbles. The religious leaders from Jerusalem had attempted on several occasions to get Jesus into trouble with the Roman Empire. For example, their question to Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay tribute or taxes to Caesar?” They had failed each time, whether on political or religious levels, until the very end. Both Empires were interested in protecting their power base. Neither wanted rivals.

For example, if you remember from Christmas-time and the birth narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod was very interested at the rumor conveyed by wise men from the “east.” Arriving in Jerusalem, they asked where the new king was born. Herod became agitated and wanted to know when and where. The Chief priests and teachers of the law, representing the religious empire, provided good information but showed no interest in what they perceived to be a political question (Matthew 2:1-8). Herod took action on his concern; the religious leaders showed no interest.

Later in Jesus’ life, we see these roles reversed. As Jesus neared the end of His life, the religious leaders were actively trying to kill Him. The political leaders were somewhat annoyed that they were being dragged into what they considered to be a religious disagreement. We pick up the story where the Chief Priests, Scribes and teachers of the law believe they are losing influence in the religious world to this Rabbi from Nazareth.

Reaction to Jesus’ Greatest Miracle

John the Baptist had created quite a sensation in the desert and at the Jordan River in Judea. He was a fiery, rough looking preacher. But he performed no miracles. Then Jesus comes as a teacher of righteousness and healer of diseases. While none of this bothered the political establishment in Israel, Jesus was beginning to touch the borders of dangerous territory as far as the religious power structure was concerned. Jesus went toBethany, two miles east of Jerusalem, and in one dramatic move the Jewish Sanhedrin concluded their “empire” was being threatened. Here is what brought this about.

Jesus had three close friends in Bethany, a place where He had frequently stayed. It was the home of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. Now, the sisters sent an urgent message to Jesus, alerting Him to the serious illness of their brother. Jesus delayed. Even His disciples cautioned Jesus about returning to Judea, as there were already signs of resistance from the Chief Priests. Regardless, after two days, Jesus departed forBethany.

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, both Martha and Mary seek Him out to try to get some answers for His delay. It did not seem to matter to them that even if Jesus had responded immediately on hearing of Lazarus’s illness, Lazarus would already have been dead for two days by the time He got there. He did provide them with an answer. However, what Jesus did not only astounded the sisters and his disciples–it ignited a fire inJerusalem. As the saying goes, “good news travels fast.” The report about the raising of Lazarus after he had been dead four days quickly reached the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem.

As we read from the record, a meeting of the ruling body of religious leaders was called:

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” 49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.  (John 11:45-53).

A good man performs a great miracle. The response from the religious empire was blunt: This man is a threat to our power and he must be eliminated.

How the Roman Empire Responded

The news of a preacher of righteousness and healer about the land of Judea was no secret to the Roman authorities. As Jesus would later respond to the governor, “I didn’t do these miracles in a corner.”  King Herod, who would have something to say about Jesus’ execution, had known about Him for a long time (see Luke 23:8-12). Unlike their Jerusalem counterparts, Jesus was not considered a threat to the power of Rome. To the religious leaders, it was a different story.

In a middle of the night, Jesus was arrested. Early the next morning, He was put on trial by the Sanhedrin. Their verdict? “Guilty.” The accusation made by the chief priests was far short of anything that would threaten the Roman Empire. Their first attempts to engage the Roman governor failed. The record tells us (John 18):

28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” 30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

After further conversation with the religious leaders and then Jesus, Pilate again restates his conclusion about Jesus (John 19):

4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

This may have been the time when he received a message from his wife (Matthew 27:19):

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him a message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

The religious leaders, however, convinced of Jesus’ threat to their power, pressed the Roman governor to rid them of Jesus. Their appeal didn’t impress Pilate:

12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

At this point, the religious leaders touched a nerve in the Roman hierarchy: Jesus was a threat to the Empire because He was a king!  (John 19):

13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was aboutnoon.

The Two Empires Join Forces

As we noted in the account of the three Hebrews in the book of Daniel, here, the political and religious leaders united to do away with Jesus. Neither the Empire from Jerusalem nor that from Rome wanted opposition. Both now concluded that Jesus was a threat to their power. You can see the joining of purpose from the conversation between Pilate and the religious leaders (John 19):

14 “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. 15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.  “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.  16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

Both Empires thought they could rid themselves of a common enemy. Just as King Nebuchadnezzar and the accusers of the three Hebrews believed they could destroy the challenge to their authority, so Pilate and Herod, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem thought Jesus was gone for good. The tomb would forever silence Him. His followers would fade into the fabric of Judean culture. While they knew about the miracle of Lazarus; they didn’t realize that the one who brought him back to life was the resurrection and the life. Just as they ignored the evidence of Jesus’ teaching and healing, they could not see that Jesus’ resurrection was coming.

Rome and Jerusalem were also ignoring the truth from the book of Daniel. As far as King Nebuchadnezzar was concerned, you see, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were as good as dead. But when the three Hebrews walked out of the furnace, it was resurrection day for them. When they survived the furnace that had incinerated the soldiers who carried them there, it was as dramatic as Jesus’ rising from the tomb. And the “son of one of the gods” that the King had seen in the furnace, was in truth, the Son of God who was nailed to the cross hundreds of years later just outside Jerusalem.

Discussion Questions and Lessons for Life:

  1. If the three Hebrew young men wanted to compromise with the Empire, what reasons could they have given?

 

  1. Why do you think the three Hebrews stood and didn’t bow down? Why did they trust God?

 

  1. What did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego accomplish in defying King Nebuchadnezzar?

 

  1. How was walking out of the furnace and Jesus’ resurrection similar? Or, different?

 

  1. How do you think Jesus could have avoided crucifixion?

 

  1. What impact did Jesus’ resurrection have on Pilate? On the disciples? On today’s Christian?

 

  1. Are there any furnaces or crosses you are facing in your life?  What can you do?

 

 

Chapter 7